The Walter Lübcke murder case has been negotiated in Frankfurt since June. Now the extensive and complex criminal process is drawing to a close.
They happen again and again, those moments in which a question involuntarily arises: How do the relatives stand it? A Thursday at the beginning of November, it is the 27th day of the trial in the trial of the murder of the Kassel District President Walter Lübcke. Stephan Ernst, who is said to have shot the CDU politician with a “Rossi” brand revolver, is asked about his career. The 47-year-old answers with a monotonous voice. He seems emotionless, almost indifferent, even when he talks about his time in the neo-Nazi scene and the brutal acts of violence that he has committed since the 1990s. But when it comes to his daughter, who broke up with him in order to forge friendships with people of non-German origin who basically ran counter to his right-wing ideology, Ernst sheds tears. Stephan Ernst, it looks like he is sorry for himself.
Opposite him, on the other side of the wood-paneled room 165 C, sits Irmgard Braun-Lübcke. The 67-year-old was married to Walter Lübcke for almost 40 years and had been looking forward to his upcoming retirement with him. She and her sons Christoph and Jan-Hendrik Lübcke take part in many days of the trial as joint plaintiffs and then always keep their eyes on Ernst and the accused of aiding and abetting Markus H. What can the widow think about when she sees Ernst’s tears, those of his family, but not of their murdered husband? Where does she get the strength to sit still? “The situation is really not easy here,” Braun-Lübcke once said when she testified as a witness in mid-November. Everyone in the hall knows how understated that must be.
Since mid-June, the 5th Criminal Senate of the Frankfurt Higher Regional Court has been trying to legalize the background to the murder of Walter Lübcke. At the same time, it is about a second act, which often pales next to the spectacular first one – an alleged right-wing terrorist murder of an active politician: Stephan Ernst is said to have rammed a knife in the back of the Iraqi refugee Ahmed I for racist motives. The now 27-year-old was seriously injured and still suffers from his physical and mental scars.
After more than 30 days of negotiation, the much-noticed process is drawing to a close, and the Senate wants to give its verdict in December. Walter Lübcke, at the time of the crime 65 years old, had been fighting for a humane refugee policy since 2015. Because of his Christian image of man, that was a matter of course for him, as his widow describes it in court. The hostility and threats annoyed him, he was not afraid.
The CDU politician had become a figure of hatred for many right-wing extremists after he clashed with right-wing troublemakers at a citizens’ meeting to accommodate refugees in autumn 2015 in Lohfelden in northern Hesse. In the heat of the moment, Lübcke had thrown screamers at their angry heads that he was proud of how people in need were helped. It is worthwhile to stand up for humane values - and anyone who completely disagrees with them can leave the country at any time. A video of the scene, filmed by co-defendant Markus H. and then uploaded to Youtube, fueled right-wing hatred nationwide.
On the evening of June 1 of last year, in Wolfhagen-Istha, Lübcke’s place of residence, the politician is sitting on his favorite garden chair on the terrace of his house. His first grandchild is visiting overnight for the first time, and Lübcke searches the Internet for hotels for a short vacation. What exactly happens then is not clear. In any case, Walter Lübcke dies that night. There is a bullet in his head, caliber .38 special.
There is hardly any doubt that Stephan Ernst is found guilty of this murder. The evidence is overwhelming. The investigators found 300 traces of DNA on the victim’s shirt, almost all of which came from Lübcke. Only on the front right was a single flake of skin that scored a hit in a DNA database: it was made by Stephan Ernst. So he came into the sights of the investigators: inside.
An expert soberly put it at the beginning of October that the skin particle came from Ernst, 30 billion times more likely than that it did not come from him. The same applies to a second flake of skin that was found on the shoulder of Lübcke’s shirt – and to all DNA traces on the murder weapon that Ernst had buried on his employer’s premises. Ernst had betrayed the earth depot to the police himself – when he made his first confession.
Of course, it did not stop at this first confession. In the meantime, Ernst has admitted the fatal shot at Walter Lübcke three times, twice during the investigation and once in court. The fact that he described three versions of what happened on the evening of the crime posed challenges for the Senate from the start: Which of Ernst’s versions should one believe? Is one right, is something right about all of them?
At first, after his arrest, Ernst claimed to have committed the murder alone. He projected all his fear of “foreign infiltration” into Germany and all his anger because of Islamist attacks in Europe onto Lübcke. Then he revoked his confession and stated that he had been at the crime scene with his friend Markus H. They just wanted to hit Lübcke and intimidate him – the shot that H. fired was an accident.
The third version of the offense, which Ernst still holds on to today, is similar to the second, but with one crucial difference: he decided and carried out the act with H., says Ernst. H. had been standing in front of Lübcke on the terrace and he himself, Ernst, had shot from the side. His first versions of the crime are wrong and can be traced back to the strategies of his defense lawyers at the time. The court subsequently pursued this claim with enormous effort – with no clear result.
The evidence from the attack on Ahmed I is far less clear. On January 6, 2016, the young man ran from his refugee accommodation in Kassel-Lohfelden to a gas station to get cigarettes. Suddenly a cyclist had approached him and I. had felt something that he interpreted as a blow. But in his back there was a three centimeter long and 4.5 centimeter deep wound. I. crawled to the next intersection where a driver noticed him. A 40-person special commission investigated and considered a racist motive to be possible and even knocked on the bush at 31 neo-Nazis known to the police – including Stephan Ernst. Without result: after a few months, the investigation was stopped.
The fact that Stephan Ernst is blamed for the act today is due to himself. In his first confession, Ernst described a “key experience”: On New Year’s Eve 2015, young men with a migrant background were assaulted on women in Cologne. Angry about this “loss of control”, he “ran through the streets in the evening, completely angry,” said Ernst. He kicked election posters and insulted a “foreigner” on the street: “You’d have to have your neck cut off.” When the interrogators asked for a date, Ernst spontaneously mentioned January 6th.
The investigators are listening carefully. Has Ernst just made an encoded confession in the Ahmed I case? The investigation will resume and soon there will be results: The crime scene is close to Ernst’s house and also on his way to work. Ernst owns several wheels, a red jackknife is found in the cellar with DNA traces on the blade. An appraiser cannot assign 100 percent of the trace to Ahmed I., but he makes a statement in court: He is convinced that I. or a close relative contributed to the trace.
In court, Ernst denied having anything to do with the attack. He can also show a receipt that at the end of January 2016 – after the attack on Ahmed I – he bought a knife that could be the red jackknife. His defense attorneys have also gone to great lengths to cast doubt on the victim’s credibility and the DNA expert’s expertise.
The reason is simple: Serious racist acts of violence run like a red thread through Stephan Ernst’s life. Arson at a house inhabited by Turks in 1989, a knife attack on a Turkish imam in 1992, a pipe bomb attack on an asylum shelter in 1993, several assaults. Should he be convicted of attempted murder of Ahmed I in addition to the murder of Lübcke, he could be placed in preventive detention after serving a long prison term.
This is all the more true as the renowned psychiatrist Norbert Leygraf, who spoke to Ernst several times and observed him during the trial, came to the conclusion in an expert report that his alleged exit from the right-wing scene since 2009 was not credible. The tendency to criminal offenses and the right-wing extremist attitudes are part of Ernst’s personality – a reversal is not at all recognizable.
Ernst’s former friend and political companion Markus H. no longer has to fear such drastic punishments. The 44-year-old is charged with aiding and abetting murder because he is said to have encouraged Ernst in his hatred of Walter Lübcke and, for example, influenced him with joint target practice.
In his confessions, Ernst H., whom he met in the early 2000s in the militant Nazi scene in Kassel, describes as a kind of mentor, as a whisperer who radicalized him again before his act. Lastly, Ernst testified that H. was at the scene of the crime. So far there is no objective evidence of this, such as DNA traces.
Although H’s neo-Nazi sentiment became abundantly clear during the trial – among other things, he owned stacks of Nazi propaganda and a photo of himself showing the “Hitler salute” – the Senate released him from custody at the beginning of October. He is no longer urgently suspect. The testimony of his former partner, a central witness, was not very productive in court, the judges put many question marks on Ernst’s statements: inside there were many question marks. H. himself did not provide any information in the process, but was noticed by grinning and smirking – a circumstance that Irmgard Braun-Lübcke described as “very hurtful”.
The Lübcke family, they have emphasized several times, consider H. complicit in the death of Walter Lübcke. There are plenty of indications for this: Markus H. trained with Ernst on weapons, was with him at AfD demos and at the citizens’ meeting in Lohfelden, at home he had the book “Umvolkung” by the right-wing author Akif Pirinçi. The name Walter Lübcke was marked with a highlighter. Nevertheless, it is possible that in the end only one gun crime remains from all allegations against H. and that he leaves the courtroom as a free man because of the pre-trial detention.
Hundreds of evidence, circumstantial evidence and contradicting narratives have been laboriously compiled in room 165 C since mid-June. Soon the four judges and one judge will have to figure them out. Your judgment will determine the further life of Markus H. and especially that of Stephan Ernst. And Ahmed I. and the Lübcke family will also have to deal with the decision – and with the agonizing questions that will probably remain. How will you take it?