Tunnel vision in German investigation: A possible miscarriage of justice

On 7 May 2001, in the small town of Lichtenberg, 9-year old Peggy goes missing. Initially, the investigation leads nowhere, but then 24 -year-old Ulvi – who originates from the same village as Peggy – arouses suspicion. Ever since he suffered from meningitis as a toddler, Ulvi is handicapped. He has the mental capacities of a 10-year old.

In the village, it is a known fact that Ulvi repeatedly exposed himself in front of children and prompted them to touch him. Ulvi becomes the prime suspect, and the police interrogators confront him with the finding of Peggy’s blood on his clothes. During this interrogation – we are now in July 2002 – he confesses. In April 2003 he was sentenced to life imprisonment, along with an order to psychiatric treatment. Case closed.

Or is it? Ulvi soon retracts his confession and asserts his innocence. In fact, his alibi is gapless and the details regarding the course of events cannot be confirmed. For example, Peggy’s body is not found at the location Ulvi describes. In addition, Ulvi changes his statement in every hearing: once he names his father as the one who allegedly helped him remove the body, another time he mentions his best friend as accomplice. And the blood on his clothes? A feigned detail to make him confess.

This raises questions as to why the investigators and court did not become suspicious, for example when the confession contained no crime knowledge.  Or when Ulvi’s alibi checked out.  It seems that all cues and leads were interpreted in a way that they matched a previously established hypothesis, namely that Ulvi is the perpetrator. It would not be the first time that crime investigations were largely controlled by wishful thinking, rather than facts. Psychologists speak of tunnel vision, and similar cases are known in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the UK. Whether or not Ulvi is innocent, we don’t know. But there are good reasons to put this case to the acid test. The good news is, in December 2013 the proceedings before the District Court of Bayreuth were resumed, and the trial is scheduled to start in April 2014. Hopefully the new judges will have an unclouded view.

This blog was originally published in German at de.in-mind.org.

Update (14-5-2014): Ulvi K. acquitted.

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