The Thomas Quick Affair

(I thought I’d begin this brave new venture by re-posting a piece that Kajsa and I recently posted on the LRB Blog.)

Hannes Råstam’s Thomas Quick: The Making of a Serial Killer was translated into English earlier this year. It is highly recommendable for any fan of Nordic noir. Thomas Quick trumps any of Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson’s fictional villains, with more than thirty victims to his name: boys, girls, women, old men, blacks, whites; slaughtered all over Sweden and Norway (and one in Finland) between 1964 and the early 1990s, by knifing, clubbing, strangulation or suffocation; sometimes raped (both sexes); dismembered; and in one case cannibalised. He was tried for eight of the murders, and found guilty of all of them, serving his sentences in Säter psychiatric prison in Dalarna. He puts British ‘Rippers’ in the shade. Except that he doesn’t. Because he almost certainly didn’t commit any of these crimes. He was formally pardoned for the last of them a few months ago.

Råstam, one of those heroically obsessive investigative journalists like Larsson’s Mikael Blomkvist, died of cancer in January 2012, the day after completing his book. Given his account, it’s difficult to understand why Quick was ever convicted. There was no material or eye-witness evidence against him in any of the cases; only his ‘confessions’ to all of them, plus proof of a criminal and paedophile (but not murderous) youth.

None of this should have been conclusive; and the police authorities tried to do better, usually by seeking information from Quick which only the true murderer could know. Råstam’s inquiries revealed that in fact he learned it all either from newspaper accounts, which he diligently researched in public libraries when he was let out of Säter, or tip-offs by the authorities, or hints and nudges while he was driving with them to reveal his killing grounds. Most of his information was wildly inaccurate: victims described wrongly, or who turned out to be still alive; murder weapons mistaken; burial grounds found to contain nothing. The inconsistencies were explained away by a group of enthusiastic psychiatrists who were endeavouring to dig up his repressed memories of these events; as well as of an abusive childhood (of course), which also, according to his six siblings, was entirely incredible. A repressed memory would be difficult to reveal in one go. (‘Repressed memories’ were all the rage in the 1990s.) A breakthrough seemed to come when a bone splinter was found by a ‘cadaver dog’ called Zampo at one of Quick’s murder sites. Two scientific ‘experts’ who looked at it were quite sure it came from a girl of about the right age; subjected to molecular analysis, however, it was found to be a piece of fibreboard. (In the meantime it was taken as the clinching piece of evidence in one of the cases.) Quite apart from all this, Quick’s ‘murders’ didn’t fit the usual serial killer pattern. They were far too varied, in their locations, methods and types of victims.

So what went wrong? The main problem was that the verdicts suited everyone involved (except the relatives of the victims, and any future victims of the murderers still at large). Quick, who has now resumed his birth name of Sture Bergwall, is clearly a deeply disturbed individual, as well as being heavily addicted to the drugs prescribed him at Säter. He early discovered that the more crimes he confessed, the more attention he received, and even love; and the more drugs he was allowed. He is also clever and manipulative. He wants to be notorious. Now he has managed to revive that notoriety by recanting his ‘confessions’.

The psychiatrists, who were heavily involved in the whole farrago, were anxious to have their ‘theories’ borne out by him, and even to be able to develop them for publication, and so fame. The police and the public prosecutor seemed thrilled to have a ‘serial killer’ on their hands – Sweden’s first – and to have cornered him. (Eat your heart out, Kurt Wallander!) The tabloid press lapped it all up: ‘Once you have heard his deep, bestial roar,’ said Expressen, ‘only one question remains: Is he really human?’ That’s what we expect of them. But not of the legal establishment. All the verdicts against Quick were unanimous, despite the flaws. That is the curiosity; and the aspect that is mainly troubling Swedes today.

It is difficult not to conclude that the Swedish legal system must be partly to blame. Because there are no juries, only judges flanked by political appointees, ‘unanimous’ doesn’t mean quite what it would in an Anglo-Saxon court. (That’s not to say that  ‘twelve good men and true’ – and women – would necessarily have made a difference. We’ve had our mistrials, after all.) According to Råstam, appeals in murder cases are deliberately made difficult, under Sweden’s Orubblighetsprincipen – or ‘principle of immoveability’. Quick’s defence lawyer in most of the trials, Claes Borgström, never challenged the veracity of the prosecution evidence, happy enough to go along with the general opinion of Quick, and, we imagine, with his client’s instructions. Nor did the judges. Is this a systemic fault? Once the verdicts were reached, it was difficult for any of the main actors to admit they were wrong, for fear of losing credibility and prestige. Some of them – including the prosecutor, Christer van der Kwast, and the present Chief Justice, Göran Lambertz – have fallen back on the argument that if the courts decided his guilt, and if their procedures were correct, that is enough. The state must be right, even when it’s wrong. A secondary argument is that if Quick wanted to be convicted, he deserved to be. But many Swedes aren’t so sure.

Most of the people involved here are decent and progressive, many of them Social Democrats, with great – and justified – pride in their penal system, which is more liberal and therefore more reformatory than most. It was recently reported that Sweden is to close four jails because there is so much spare capacity. (Theresa May might like to outsource some of the UK’s overcrowded prisoners there.) Is this because Sweden is better at rehabilitating criminals? Or because the police just can’t catch the guilty ones?

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