Why Do So Many German Suspects Confess?

Just recently, police caught (G) a 22-year-old German of Afghan descent who is accused of carrying out a stabbing attack on an orthodox rabbi in Frankfurt. A few days before that, police arrested a 25-year-old who stands accused of raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl from Königswinter. In the last case, the police asked hundreds of men to voluntarily give authorities a DNA sample to compare with evidence from the crime scene and got a hit for a 25-year-old Czech immigrant.

What strikes me is that in both of these cases, the accused parties have already confessed to the crimes (according to news reports.) And, in fact, it’s quite common for people to confess to violent crimes in Germany. In both of these cases, it appears that the evidence against the defendants was very strong (in the rabbi case, the defendant had described the attack on an Internet forum). However, it’s not unusual for American defendants to refuse to admit involvement in such crimes, even when the evidence seems to be overwhelming. A lot of them do confess, of course, but I’ve read numbers that suggest that confessions to violent crimes are much more common in Germany than in the United States.

The question is: why? There are a couple of hypothesis I might mention:

1.  Skilled interrogation.

2.  No death penalty, no life in prison sentences, and a rehabilitation-oriented criminal justice system (thus, much less to lose).

3.  Near-certainty of reduction in sentence in return for confession.

4.  Less adversarial criminal-justice system. Any U.S. defense lawyer worth her salt will tell all suspects never to say a word to the police for any reason without a lawyer (see #2, above for why). Many German lawyers will do so, but not all.

5.  Danger of spending long periods in pre-trial confinement (desire for speedy trial).

Those are a few of my hypotheses, some of which are more convincing than others.  Feel free to add your own in comments. 

8 thoughts on “Why Do So Many German Suspects Confess?

  1. I think most supects don’t realize that it is better to say nothing without lawyer. If they got “caught in the act” they maybe also think that it doesn’t matter if they confess or not.

    Anyway, a German defense lawyer worth her salt (!) will also tell all suspects never to say a word to the police for any reason without a lawyer.

  2. IANAL, but:
    A confession usually gives you a lighter conviction. E.g. the skin

    Furthermore, the “Strafprozessordnung” (criminal procedure) in Germany seems to make it less likely that guilty perpetrators go without conviction than that in the US. In Germany, the purpose of the trial is to find the truth, and all parties have to engage in that, whereas in the US it seems more to be a battle between the prosecuting attorney and the defending attorney. E.g., in the US the judge or jury may only take into account what evidence either of the attorneys has produced, whereas in Germany the judge can engage more actively in finding out what really has happened. (At least in criminal trials. In a civil suit, it seems to be the same as in the US.) Thus, really good attorneys should get you off the hook more easily in the US than in Germany.

  3. Sorry, that went off too early. The second sentence should read:

    E.g. the skin heads that beat the 18yo guy into a vegetable have been saved from getting the maximum penalty only because they confessed.

  4. Is there anything like the Mendoza rule in Germany? This is the obligatory reading of their rights to people who are arrested which must be read to them before any confessions are taken.

    I believe that many more suspects confessed in the US before Mendoza was made manditory by a Supreme Court ruling. Mendoza reminds those arrested of their options before they say anything rash. Not always a bad thing – there is such a thing as false confessions….

  5. @Don:

    Is there anything like the Mendoza rule in Germany? This is the obligatory reading of their rights to people who are arrested which must be read to them before any confessions are taken.


    I think the word you’re looking for is “Miranda warning” though.

  6. English version of Germany’s Strafprozessordnung (Criminal Procedure Code):

    Section 136. [First Examination]

    (1) At the commencement of the first examination, the accused shall be informed of the offense with which he is charged and of the applicable penal provisions. He shall be advised that the law grants him the right to respond to the accusation, or not to make any statements on the charges and, even prior to his examination, to consult with defense counsel of his choice. He shall further be instructed that he may request evidence to be taken in his defense. In appropriate cases the accused shall be informed that he may respond in writing.

    (2) The examination should give the accused an opportunity to dispel the reasons for suspicion against him and to assert the facts which are in his favor.

    (3) At the first examination of the accused, his personal situation should also be ascertained.

  7. 1. Skilled interrogation

    Yes, this is also a possible but not well-known reason. The younger brother of one of my buddies I met during my Bundeswehr time was interrogated by the police because he and some of his friends attacked a pathfinder camp with self-manufactored pipe bombs. I won’t go further in details, but I think every hobby chemist or MacGuyver fan knows how to produce some really nasty stuff with powdered sugar and Unkraut-Ex.

    You know this kind of angry young males who think no end of themselves. In their own eyes, they are cold-blooded urban warriors with true military virtues; swift as greyhounds, tough as leather, and hard as Krupp steel. Well, in their own eyes…

    The next day, the guys were already taken into custody. Because an attack with self-manufactored explosives is a serious crime, perhaps a politically motivated terrorist plot, the thugs weren’t interrogated by some Dorfpolizist but separately by external specialists from the LKA (State Office of Criminal Investigation) and possibly from the Landesamt für Verfassungsschutz (State Office for the Protection of the Constitution). Note this was years before 9/11.

    They ALL confessed to the attack within hours. As my buddy said with a huge grin on his face, “They all felt about THIS big!”, indicating with right thumb and index finger. Or as we say in German: “Sie waren SO klein mit Hut!”

  8. There is something wonderful in German jurisdiction that is called mildernde Umstände; I don’t have a good translation for that. In short, it’s things that can lead to a minor sentence if your behavior is just right, and immediate confession is such a mildernder Umstand.

    The principle underlying this is that re-socialisation should go above all; there will be punishment, but it’s not thought of as a revenge for the evil deed someone has done, but it’s thought to teach that person to not do it again. So if someone shows signs of sincere regret (the term is einsichtige Reue), then he/she will be less punished, if at all. (But don’t try to act regretfulness on the judge: They’ve seen it all before, and you must be a very good actor to get away with that. Let your lawyer do the job.)

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