Berlin: Niels Hoegel, a former nurse who liked to put patients into cardiac arrest because he enjoyed the feeling of being able to resuscitate them was convicted Thursday of 85 counts of murder, making him what is believed to be the worst serial killer in modern German history.
It was the third conviction for the nurse, Niels Högel, who is believed to be the most prolific serial killer in peacetime Germany, and perhaps the world. But for the families of the 100 people whom he was accused of killing while in his care, the trial had aimed to serve as a form of belated justice by trying to find answers to why they had died.
The court also barred Mr. Högel from working as a nurse, emergency medical responder or any other job providing care. “We want to be sure that you never, ever again are able to work in such a job,” the judge said.
From the trial’s opening in October, the presiding judge, Sebastian Bührmann, had stressed that the purpose of the trial went beyond trying to determine guilt: It was to try to find answers about how and why the patients had died. But he acknowledged that in 15 other cases, the court had failed to find enough evidence to support a murder conviction.
“Despite all of our attempts, we could only lift part of the fog that hangs this trial,” the judge said. “That fills us with a certain sadness.”
Throughout the more than 90 minutes that he read the sentencing, Judge Bührmann directly addressed Mr. Högel. The former nurse, dressed in a black T-shirt and wearing a thick chain necklace, sat with his head resting in the palm of his right hand, listening passively.
“Mr. Högel, your actions are beyond comprehension,” Judge Bührmann said. “The human ability to understand capitulates when faced with the sheer number of deaths, week for week, month for month, year for year.”
Mr. Högel had confessed to killing 43 patients, spending the early days of the trial going through the medical files of each of the 100 patients with the judge. For most of the others, he told the court that either he couldn’t remember or couldn’t rule out murdering the patient. He denied five charges outright.
But the court, citing his past behavior and expert testimony, questioned whether Mr. Högel’s statements had been truthful.
“The most difficult part was evaluating what you said,” the judge told him, citing specific cases where written evidence contradicted the former nurse’s testimony. “You didn’t always tell the truth, and that makes it so difficult.”
Under German law, a convicted person can be sentenced only to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 15 years, depending on the severity of the crime. Mr. Högel is already serving a life sentence for other murders, and the judge made clear that his record would ensure he is not eligible for early parole.
Citing the United States justice system, in which for each death a life sentence is handed down, the judge said that even if Mr. Högel were to serve 15 years for each of the 85 murders he carried out, it would add up to a sentence of 1,275 years in prison.
“That is an indication of what I call incomprehensible,” he said.
Officials suspect Mr. Högel of killings as many as 300 patients while working at two clinics in northern Germany between 2000 and 2005, although the true number may never be known. Reluctance on the part of the directors of the first hospital where he worked, in Oldenburg, to alert authorities to their suspicions, followed by a reluctance of previous state prosectors to take up the case once the second hospital did alert them, cost precious time and evidence.
“That was time we can’t get back,” Judge Bührmann said. “Years passed and evidence was lost.” Many witnesses couldn’t remember, he said, while others deliberately sought to hide information, he added.
In his decision, the judge condemned the director of the main Oldenburg hospital by name for failing to take action that could have stopped Mr. Högel and saved lives. Instead, the hospital moved him first to a different ward, then wrote him a glowing recommendation and let him go. Weeks later, he took his next job in a hospital in nearby Delmenhorst, about 20 miles away. There, he continued killing.
Judge Bührmann ordered eight of Mr. Högel’s former colleagues to be investigated on perjury because of suspicion that they had lied to the court or withheld evidence at the most recent trial.
Two doctors and two head nurses from the Delmenhorst hospital have been charged with manslaughter, and the authorities are investigating other hospital employees from Oldenburg. Mr. Högel could be called to testify in those trials.
Prosecutors had sought to charge him with 97 murders, but the defense argued that only 55 cases had been proved beyond a doubt. The defense said that Mr. Högel should be found guilty of attempted murder in 14 cases and acquitted of an additional 31.
The ruling can be appealed, but Mr. Högel’s defense team did not indicated whether it would do so.
After closing arguments on Wednesday, Mr. Högel read a prepared apology to the packed courtroom. “I would like to sincerely apologize for what I have done to each and every one of you,” he said.
For family members, his attempt at an apology fell flat. “He’s a liar through and through,” said Christian Marbach, whose grandfather was found to be a victim of Mr. Högel in a previous trial and had followed the recent proceedings.
More important, he said, other criminal investigations against the doctors and head nurses from the clinics where Mr. Högel worked and was allowed to kill would now be allowed to proceed.
“The wall of silence has been broken,” Mr. Marbach said. “Now it is very important that those who were in positions of power be brought to justice.”