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Germany awaits verdict in 'cannibal' trial

After weeks of  grisly deliberations, a German court will announce its verdict Friday in the case of Armin Meiwes, a 42-year-old computer specialist charged with cannibalism. NBC's Andy Eckardt reports from Germany.
Armin Meiwes in a German court in December.Uwe Zucchi / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

It is a story almost too gruesome to tell and a trial that has shocked a nation. After weeks of  grisly deliberations, a German court will announce its verdict Friday in the case of Armin Meiwes, a 42-year-old computer specialist charged with cannibalism.

The judges are expected to make legal history in the case that has both enthralled and revolted a nation.

Meiwes, who has been described as a polite, helpful, but introverted man, confessed at the opening of his trial in December, to killing, slaughtering, and eating the flesh of a Berlin man, identified as Bernd Juergen Brandes, 41. According to Meiwes, the two men had met in an Internet chat forum, where the victim had advertised his desire to be eaten.

In the testimony, so explicit that it drew gasps from the public gallery, Meiwes described how Brandes wanted to be stabbed and dismembered after drinking a bottle of cold medicine to lose consciousness.

Both men took part in a cannibalist ritual in the so called "slaughter room" of Meiwes half-timbered house in the small rural town of Rotenburg in central Germany before Brandes died.

Meiwes later cut the body into pieces, deposited the parts in a freezer, and ate portions of the human flesh in the weeks and months after the March 2001 killing.

Psychological evaluation
During his trial, Meiwes presented a shocking account of the killing, saying that the act was "like taking communion" for him. "With every piece of flesh I ate I remembered him," Meiwes told the court. "I always wanted someone to be part of me," he added.

Even while presenting the most grisly details, Meiwes remained calm and showed no emotion. Prison psychologists had evaluated Meiwes earlier, saying that he has a personality disorder and needs psychotherapy, but is not mentally ill and has sufficient self-control.

An undated police handout photo shows 42-year-old Berlin citizen Bernd-Juergen B, who was murdered in the spring 2000, by Armin Meiwes, the German computer expert who gained worldwide notoriety by killing and eating his willing victim. Meiwes' trial began on December 3, 2003 in a case of sexually inspired cannibalism so perplexing it could make legal history. EDITORIAL USE ONLY REUTERS/Police HOX80001

In sessions with police experts, Meiwes said that his desire to "slaughter and consume a human being" dates back to as early as his childhood. After his parents had separated in 1969, his two older brothers moved away from home, leaving young Armin behind with his dominant mother.

"When the family had fallen apart, I felt very lonesome," Meiwes said, adding that he always wanted to share the love that his brother Ingbert gave him with another person.

During his adolescent years, he began having cannibalistic fantasies.  Out in the countryside where he lived with his mother, Meiwes had often witnessed animal slaughtering, which became something "normal" for him and later part of his sexual fantasies.

Meiwes, who described himself as bisexual, increasingly found satisfaction in zombie movies, particularly scenes in which flesh was dismembered.

He later became interested in Internet chat rooms that dealt with "death" and "cannibalism." German police officials say that hundreds of users meet in these sadomasochistic and "torture" forums, but mostly for sexual stimulation and role play.

"I must admit that cannibalism is a new dimension. It is no longer the solemn goal to generate pain, but there is an intention to kill. But, we are regarding this as an isolated case," Frankfurt district attorney Peter Koehler, who monitors the violent pornography scene in Germany, told NBC News.

Extensive reporting
The case has received extensive play in the German media. Tabloid newspapers had given detailed accounts of the killing and indirectly analyzed the behavior of the "cannibal" by publicizing details from his past.

Even the highly respected Stern magazine made the case a front page story and dug up information that filled nearly 10 pages in the German weekly. Journalist unions and media regulatory agencies complained that the coverage was going too far.

"We have lost cultural control of what is being shown on television and written in papers," a psychiatrist from a hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany, who asked to remain unnamed, told NBC News. "The flood of extremes that are being presented these days addresses our basic instincts and can trigger new fantasies."

Critics are increasingly complaining that broadcasters in Germany are crossing a line with their detailed and extensive coverage of sensational stories.

"Our life is all about imitating and copying. From birth to death, everything is absorbed and it is just a question of how it is assimilated in the individual," the psychiatrist said.

Murder or euthanasia?
Meanwhile, judges in Kassel are confronted with an extreme case that poses a legal dilemma.

In closing arguments, prosecutors demanded life in prison for Meiwes on charges of intentional murder motivated by sexual urges. Prosecutor Marcus Koehler said Meiwes acted simply to “satisfy a sexual impulse” and filmed himself dismembering the victim before he ate him so he could “admire himself as a human butcher.” 

Defense attorney Harald Ermel argued that the slaying was a “homicide on demand” — a form of mercy killing — because the victim gave his consent to be killed and eaten.

Under German law, this would constitute a form of illegal euthanasia, which would be punished with a sentence between six months and five years.

Legal experts say that full murder charges might not hold if evidence proves that the victim was willing. Therefore, Meiwes could also be charged with manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

Police have confiscated several video films of the killing, which had already been shown as evidence in court. More than 40 witnesses will be called during the trial, including some of Meiwes’ former Internet contacts. 

"I do not envy the presiding judge," said Koehler. "Evidence and laws will have to be considered carefully, but in the end — because there is no precedent — it is likely to be a matter of discretion," he said.

Police tracked down and arrested Meiwes in December 2002 after a student in Austria alerted them to a message Meiwes had posted on the Internet.

“If I hadn’t been so stupid as to keep looking on the Internet, I would have taken my secret to the grave,” Meiwes said in court on Monday.