How the German legal system failed Horst Arnold

Editor’s note: This article is also available in Romanian.
Imagine you are accused of a terrible crime against a woman you didn’t commit. One of your co-workers claims you raped her. And not just any rape, but a brutal anal rape that left her bleeding from her rectum. You are arrested by the police and questioned. You are put on trial where your accuser produces not a single shred of evidence. Rape kit? DNA evidence? Examination of physical injuries? No, none of that. Not even any bloodstains on the supposed victim’s clothing. She claims she burned her bloody underwear because she was so ashamed of what had happened. The trial doesn’t last long. It’s your word against hers. She’s seems like a charming woman who could never make up a horrible story like that. The judge believes her.
You are sentenced to five years in prison. Most people don’t have to serve their entire sentence. They are released earlier for good behaviour. But a requirement for that is to show remorse for what you did. You don’t feel remorse. You aren’t guilty and you cannot regret what you didn’t do. You could fake a confession to get out earlier, but you know you are not a rapist. You insist on your innocence. After the full five years, you are finally released. But much more than just five years of your life have been stolen from you. You’ve lost your partner, your friends, your job. Only your family still believes in you. You send out hundreds of applications for new jobs, but no one is willing to hire a convicted rapist. You’re in your late forties and you have two children of your own, but you have to move back in with your parents. The world has betrayed you and you become depressed.
The first timid ray of light comes when a lawyer offers to take up your case pro bono. He discovers that your accuser has a long history of outrageous lying and he gets the case to be retried. You are finally declared innocent, but the damage has already been done. You try to get your old job back, but you are delayed by bureaucratic hurdles. No one is willing to make an exception for you, despite everything you went through. They haven’t even started paying you the reparations you are owed for your wrongful imprisonment. A year later, you suffer a heart-attack and die at age 53.


This is the story of Horst Arnold’s life. He was a school teacher until his life was ruined by his co-worker Heidi Külzer. He went to jail from 2001 to 2006 and was finally exonerated in July of 2011. He died on June 29th 2012. He didn’t live to see his false accuser get sentenced to five years and six months in jail. The only piece of good news in this tragedy is that for once, a false accuser got the punishment she deserved instead of merely a slap on the wrist as happens all too often.
But this doesn’t help Horst Arnold, nor would it help him if he were still alive. Revenge is a poor substitute for justice and the injustice that was committed against Mr Arnold can never be righted. The closest we could have come is monetary compensation. Since Mr Arnold is dead, the next best thing would be for the compensation to go to his children.
To this end, Arnold’s daughter sued Külzer. The regional court in Darmstadt found Külzer guilty and awarded €80,000 in damages.[1] However, Külzer appealed the verdict and Arnold’s daughter has now dropped the case.[2] Her exact reasons are unclear. A plausible explanation is that she does not believe it likely that Külzer will actually be able to pay. In that case, the daughter would have to pay the legal fees out of her own pocket without getting anything in return. Heidi Külzer on the other hand doesn’t have to pay any legal fees. Her lawyer is provided at taxpayer expense, so she doesn’t mind dragging out this legal battle for as long as possible.
This is a central flaw in the German legal system, as in most modern legal systems. Because there are so many laws and navigating the system is so complicated, law suits frequently get dragged out for years and cost obscene amounts of money. As a result, all too often justice is something only the wealthy can afford—or those who are supported by the state and can off-load their legal costs onto the unwilling shoulders of taxpayers. For an ordinary person like Horst Arnold’s daughter, justice is out of reach.
But this flaw pales compared to what happened in the original rape case. In all the justified outrage over Heidi Külzer, it is easy to forget the other villains in this piece: the prosecutors, and most importantly Dr Christoph Trapp, the judge responsible for the case.[3] Without their gross incompetence, laziness, or malice, Arnold would never have been convicted. There are always going to be insane psychopaths like Heidi Külzer who try to ruin an innocent man’s life for no good reason. It is the duty of the legal system to stop this from happening. It failed to live up to this responsibility in spectacular fashion.
From the start, Külzer’s story should have given anyone pause. [4] She claims that the rape took place during recess in a well-lit biology classroom with open windows. Anyone passing by could have seen the supposed crime happen, anyone could have come into the room. Supposedly, Arnold pressed up behind her, held her mouth closed with his left hand and used the right hand to take off his trousers and pull aside her skirt and then anally raped her while she lay across a counter. This course of events is quite implausible. According to Horst Plefka, detective chief superintendent in charge of the case, anal rapes are rare and when they do happen, the victims are defenceless, tied down, or drugged. Immediately following this supposed traumatic event, Külzer taught a class without showing any signs of distress or injury.
Detective Plefka searched long and hard for evidence to corroborate Külzer’s story. He found none. All he found were contradictions in Külzer’s account. For example, she claimed that Horst Arnold threatened her days after the rape had allegedly occurred—at a time when Arnold was already in custody. Research into Külzer’s background would have revealed her to be a compulsive liar. She invented the most far-fetched stories. A few years earlier, she had told her then-husband that she had a fatal illness and would die soon. She claimed that her co-workers at one school had tried to poison her. Her marriages never lasted long and she never stayed long at a school. Eventually people always began to sniff out her bullshit, and then it was time for her to move on. But the police didn’t research her background. It would have been rude and improper to impose that on a “victim” of rape. Still, Detective Plefka had grave doubts about Külzer’s story. However, he was not allowed to appear in court to testify in favour of Arnold.
In the absence of evidence, the persecution rested entirely on character and prejudice. Horst Arnold was a big man with a loud and boisterous attitude. He was known to have a drinking problem. He was the sort of person who one could plausibly think of as a rapist. Heidi Külzer appeared to be charming and innocent: the perfect victim. She didn’t look like someone who would invent an outrageous story like this. And if her account of events occasionally contradicted itself, this was only seen as a normal reaction to the trauma she had undergone. After all, as feminists like to remind us, women don’t lie about rape.
Christoph Trapp presided over this travesty.[5] He decided that Horst Arnold was guilty, based on nothing but the alleged victim’s incoherent account and his own worthless intuition. In his unbridled arrogance, Trapp even now claims that he acted rightly and made no mistake in sentencing Arnold to five years in jail. “Our judgement back then had been carefully reviewed.” When there is any reasonable doubt, a criminal court is supposed to rule in favour of the accused. Trapp must have forgot this elementary principle.
Judges are only human and they do make mistakes. That is to be expected. But this is more than a simple mistake. Christoph Trapp ruined an innocent man’s life, based on nothing more than a hunch. For this crime, he will never have to spend a single day jail. Nor will he have to pay any damages. Horst Arnold’s daughter should have also sued Trapp, though of course she didn’t. That would be a hopeless prospect. Trapp is part of the legal system and protected by it. He won’t even lose his job over this.
This is the real tragedy in all this. Because Horst Arnold’s case is unique only in how much media attention it received. For every Horst Arnold, who knows how many innocent people are in jail who are never exonerated? Many of them are men falsely convicted of rape. Rape is the most problematic crime in this respect because it is very difficult to prove. The only difference between regular sex and rape is consent. Even rough sex leading to injuries may have been consensual. Compare that to a crime like murder: “He wanted me to stab him in the gut!” is not a very convincing defence. Moreover, due to the private nature of sex, there usually aren’t any witnesses or recordings. This makes it much more difficult to prove rape in court. Given the usual standard of in dubio pro reo (“when in doubt, for the accused”), many rapists would get off scot-free. Under the influence of feminist lobbyists, this principle has been undermined for rape cases and many judges are now willing to convict based on less conclusive evidence—or as in the present case, based on just a hunch. And while it is good that this has led to more rapists being convicted, the unacceptable side-effect is that many innocent men have been caught in the crossfire.
When offered to have their sentence reduced by one third for “admitting” their guilt and showing remorse, how many innocent people lie? Once an innocent man has taken that road, he will forever be marked guilty. And even for those who stick to their guns and refuse this offer, the hurdles to get an old case re-opened are high. Most cases are not nearly as clear-cut as Arnold’s. And in those rare cases where a false verdict is overturned, the judge responsible still has to suffer no consequences. This is a system that cannot possibly work. It is guaranteed to lead to abuse. Holding judges personally responsible for such glaring errors would not eliminate the problem altogether, but would at least ameliorate it. Judges would have to be more careful before throwing a man in jail.
Unfortunately, this is wishful thinking. In the foreseeable future, there is no chance to get any sort of legal accountability for judges. The best we can hope for is harsher punishments for false accusers. In this case, Heidi Külzer was convicted to a prison sentence because her false testimony lead to Arnold’s imprisonment. If her story had been discovered from the start to be a lie, most likely she would have gotten off with just a warning or a slap on the wrist. This needs to change. If we want to stop cases like Horst Arnold’s in the future, we need to start treating false accusations as the serious crimes they are.

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