About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Collini Case by Ferdinand Von Schirach With Spoilers

In my last post I put up a review of The Collini Case by Ferdinand Von Schirach. In that review I said there were topics I wanted to address but felt a discussion about them would include huge spoilers. Thus I warn readers of this post not to venture further in the post if you do not want spoilers. 

The theme for this post is limitation periods. Much of the book revolves around a carefully worded change to the German constitution which prevented Meyer from being charged with as an accessory to murder with regard to his actions as a German officer in Italy during WW II. He could have been charged  for his role in reprisal killings of Italian partisans but the quiet passage in 1968 of a bill that “certain accessories to murder were now sentenced as if they were accessories to manslaughter instead”. By operation of German laws providing limitation periods for all crimes except murder the change meant there was an amnesty for former soldiers such as Meyer.

In Canada there are no limitation periods for charging an accused with indictable offences, serious charges. Meyer could have been charged with being an accessory to murder or manslaughter in Canada even 70 years after the war.

While the book clearly challenges a law that allowed some war criminals (the question of charging soldiers for reprisals is uncomfortable for all armies in WW II were involved in reprisals though none of the Western armies on the scale of the German army) to escape prosecution because too much time had elapsed I have experience with the difficulty of defending people who have been charged decades after alleged offences.

It is ever more difficult to get at the truth the longer the time period between the alleged crime and trial.

As a lawyer you test the recollections of witnesses by what else was going on at the time of the alleged crime. What are the details of the timing of events, of the place where the alleged crime took place, of who was involved and of what was said? Decades later it is credible for a witness to say they lack those specific memories but it is more dangerous to the accused than the prosecution to lack those details.

The more prominent the accusation the more likely the public will assume guilt. Just using the phrase war criminal is to tar an accused beyond redemption in the court of public opinion.

When dealing with charges of crimes allegedly committed decades ago the fate of the accused is left to an assessment of the credibility of the witnesses and the accused if he or she should testify. It will be rare there is forensic evidence in these old cases.

I say there is as much injustice done in Canada because there are no limitation periods in Canada as there is in Germany where there are limitation periods.

Highly public cases of sexual abuse have led the way against limitation periods in Canada. Little attention is given to the cases involving families where accused faced trials many years later.

Recently, in a review of Once We Were Brothers by Ronald D. Balson, I touched upon these same evidentiary challenges in civil proceedings being launched six decades after the war.
In that book  Ben Solomon was suing wealthy Chicago philanthropist, Elliott Rosenzweig, for stealing from his family in WW II Poland because he could not sue for wrongful death due to civil limitation periods.

I referred to in posts at that time to the real life cases of John Demjanjuk.

He was found not guilty of being the sadistic WW II concentration guard, Ivan the Terrible, by Israel's appellate court when massive evidence assembled after trial showed he was not Ivan.

Demjanjuk was subsequently charged again in Germany as an accessory to murder and was undergoing trial in Germany in 2012 at 91years of age when he died before the end of the trial. Was justice being served in charging Demjanjuk a second time over six decades after the war?

Publicly it was stated that it was a necessary charge to show war criminals will always be hunted down. It was essentially a symbolic charge. It was a race to see if the would survive the criminal process and he did not live to hear his final verdict. It was a modern show trial.

How Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian, could be charged in Germany with being an accessory to murder as a prison camp guard while Meyer in this books could not be charged as a German officer is a question I have not researched.

A balance is necessary in legal systems. I say it is wrong that murderers or accessories to murder should ever be able to avoid being charged. At the same time I think we are better served as societies by having limitation periods on other offences. The occasional, I would say rare, prominent case that would go unpunished is countered by the number of innocent accused who avoid trials many years later. Our Anglo / Canadian legal systems are based on some guilty being found not guilty to avoid any innocent being found guilty. Limitation periods support that principle.


  1. Bill - What a thoughtful post. Thank you for discussing these questions. As you've shown, limitation periods are not any more perfect solutions than anything else is. A lot of the 'cop shows' that focus on older cases have things like DNA evidence turning up or something else similar that unequivocally show who's really guilty of a crime. My guess is that it doesn't happen that neatly at all in real life. Even if there is somehow that kind of incontrovertible evidence, there are enough other factors involved that I can well imagine it's harder to make a case after a very long time than soon after a crime. This is all really interesting, for which thanks.

  2. Margot: Thanks for the comment. Many decades old charges would be quickly resolved if there was forensic evidence but it is rarely available. In most cases there was no investigation at that time. The allegations arise many years later and all the evidence is verbal.

  3. I thought this book was very illuminating. It showed that the law was changed in Germany in 1968 to the benefit of soldiers who collaborated in genocide, i.e., "I was only following orders." I don't think any time limitations should apply regarding war crimes.

    This was WWII, the Holocaust. Crimes were committed against millions of people for many reasons. And the Germans violated international laws constantly, daily. They should have been held accountable for all of these horrible acts.

    What's criminal to me is that so many war criminals fled to South America, the U.S. and Canada and were never caught and tried or were caught in their older age, which is almost pointless.

    Sometimes the NY Times has obituaries of people in their 80s and 90s who have lived in the U.S. or Canada peacefully since the war, and they committed horrific war crimes. Is that right? No.

    In this country, there are statutes of limitations, but not on murder, usually.

    I read at Mrs Peabody Investigates, a terrific website, run by German literature professor, Katherina Hall, that this book instigated a discussion of the German criminal justice system inside that country. It must have shocked many Germans.

    Hall was going to inform her readers if any changes arose from those discussions. I surely hope so.

    I think the writer, Ferdinand von Schirach, had this intention when he wrote the book. His grandfather was a German war criminal, responsible for the deaths of many. He went to prison for many years, but never regretted his actions nor apologized for them.

    The author must bear feelings of shame about his grandfather's actions. So, by writing this book, he may have been expressing his feelings and views and calling for legal changes.

    The WWII genocide should never be forgotten, nor its criminals let off the hook. It's just unfortunate that so many escaped punishment, some through "ratlines," to North and South America, or somehow lived in Europe.


    1. Kathy D.: I agree with murder and its legal variations should never have time limits. I am less sure about other war crimes. Hatred can lead to false accusations and destroyed lives.

  4. Well, there should always be evidence or testimony that shows the guilt of those who committed war crimes.

    Gordon Ferris' Pilgrim Soul contains courtroom scenes of witnesses who had been in concentration camps testifying against Nazi officers in Hamburg in 1946-1947.

    Ferris mentioned in his Afterword the number of war criminals who were executed; it was a low number. But he also mentions some who didn't even go to jail ot were imprisoned for short periods.

    Hatred isn't a reason for punishing people. But collaborating in genocide is. And I think the "only following orders" in carrying out horrific brutality is not an excuse. People have to have consciences and limits on what they will do as human beings, including soldiers.

    During the Vietnam War, there were massacres by U.S. soldiers and all sorts of atrocities were committed, including the My Lai massacre.. A few were tried and sentenced to short prison terms. Many others were not held accountable.

    As you recall, there was a gigantic anti-war and anti-dratt movement going on in the U.S., which grew as people got word of atrocities going on in Vietnam. Many soldiers refused to carry out these brutal acts in one way or another.

    In the U.S., there are a lot of difficulties within the criminal justice system, with evidence hidden by police or prosecutors. Just a few weeks ago, two men were released from a North Carolina jail on the basis of DNA evidence after wrongly serving 30 years, one on death row.

    A man in New York was awarded $6 million for having been wrongfully jailed for decades and finally was released on the basis of "newly found" evidence. And another man was recently released after 17 years incarceration on the basis of evidence.

    I hope that the German justice system revises its laws, although now most war criminals from WWII have probably died. It's too bad so many were able to escape punishment, and that many were able to live good lives in South America, the U.S. and Canada. It's just morally wrong, given what they did.