Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2013:1
Review Section: Factual Crime Writing
This is not some lurid tale of a serial killer, but an examination of what happens when complex social structures such as the legal system or healthcare fall prey to enthusiastic or misguided professionals. This book bites back at the therapists, police and lawyers who for some reason viewed this patient – Sture Bergwall, also known as Thomas Quick – as a professional battleground.
When Thomas Quick made his first murder confessions in the mid-1990s, Sweden had never had its own serial killer, which some may have felt was a cultural deficiency. Possibly Thomas Quick was the country’s chance to enter a bigger world, a world in the grip of serial killer fever as it greedily devoured films and books such as The Silence of the Lambs.
As far as Thomas Quick went, there was widespread enthusiasm for the almost literary idea that a man locked up in a psychiatric ward could suddenly begin to remember his earlier crimes. Police officers, therapists and a band of academics known as ‘human memory experts’– much like Jodie Foster in the aforementioned film – had to listen deferentially to riddles and take notes while the criminal spoke. Leif GW Persson, the criminologist-cum-writer, calls Råstam’s book a description of ‘a Swedish legal system afflicted with moral, juridical and intellectual meltdown and a Swedish psychiatric welfare system that might lead one’s thoughts to an early Soviet counterpart that up until now we thought we could only read about.’
Lawyers want to win their cases; prosecutors do not want to become known for prosecuting individuals later found to be innocent. Both chief prosecutor Christer van der Kwast and the police interrogator Seppo Penttinen were promoted as a consequence of their successes in the Quick affair. The same might be said of the army of therapists swarming round the honeypot killer. One would love to see their invoices.
Råstam is under no illusions about the importance of his investigation. To convict an innocent person of murder is much more than a personal disaster or the individual concerned. It effectively creates an amnesty for the real killer. Over a thirty-year period, several despicable crimes were pinned on a man who now seems unlikely to have had anything to do with any of them. Råstam’s searing criticism of the Swedish institutions involved is therefore doubly important. Institutions are supposed to protect the individual, not expose him to unnecessary suffering. Psychiatric clinics should not turn their patients into drug addicts, therapists and police officers should not question patients while they are drugged. Nor is therapy an obscure hobby horse to be used in far-fetched court judgments.
If one accepts Råstam’s analysis, one must accept that there have been fundamental flaws in the Swedish police orce and justice system. It no longer seems so very remarkable that the same institutions, just a few years earlier, failed to bring Olof Palme’s killer to justice. Incompetence, not conspiracy, must surely have been at the root of it.
Hannes Råstam cannot be faulted on his grasp of detail. Early on, he takes on the challenge of having to refute every argument used as evidence in every one of Quick’s arraignments – in six court cases he was found guilty of eight murders. Råstam had some fifty thousand pages to check and a legion of people to question. Initially the reader is dubious: how could Thomas Quick possibly be innocent? This was a man who (according to the prosecution and the press) had led the police to the murder scenes, where in one case pieces of human bone were later found, scored with saw marks. This was a man who, in his youth, had seriously injured a man in a vicious knife attack. Over a number of years, as his murder confessions proliferated to thirty-five, he had impressed six different district courts with his unique insights into his crimes. In spite of a lack of technical evidence and witnesses – no one ever saw Quick in the vicinity of his alleged crimes – all six courts found him guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. Yet, as Råstam starts investigating, he is informed by a number of sceptics that Thomas Quick never actually gave the police any information that they did not already know.
Prior to his prosecutions he was given access to some of the investigation protocols, public libraries where he allegedly researched ‘his crimes’ while on parole, and a helpful group of therapists, lawyers and police officers who all seemed convinced of his guilt and were prepared to coach him until he came up with answers that would stand up in court.
Even while the trials were in progress there were kangaroo-court aspects to the proceedings: Quick’s own defence counsel seemed unwilling to defend a man who had already confessed to such hideous crimes. Oddly enough, the phenomenon of false confessions was poorly understood in Sweden at the time. The therapists at Säter Hospital relied on using regression as a way of recovering repressed memories. They must have been extremely successful. When Thomas Quick was first committed to Säter he had no memory of ever having killed anyone.
The famous piece of human bone, described by chief prosecutor Christer van der Kwast as probably the most important technical evidence of all the Quick trials, turned out to be a piece of charred wood, and only at this stage was it made clear that it had never been subjected to a proper examination in laboratory conditions – although it was presented in court as evidence.
The procedural failures by both prosecution and defence would surely constitute breach of duty or even malpractice practically everywhere. For instance, Christer van der Kwast later recommended the psychiatrist, responsible for questioning Quick during the preliminary investigation on behalf of the prosecution, as a suitable psychological expert to advise the judge on the suspect’s testimony. In effect, he was advising the court on the relevance of his own work.
These accusations are broadly denied by the main figures in this drama, most of whom have now retired. In spite of the fact that Quick has now been cleared of all the murders, van der Kwast and others continue to insist that he was guilty as charged and only cleared on technicalities. Göran Lambertz, the Chancellor of Justice, defended the record of the prosecution and seemed eager to smooth over criticisms that reflected badly on the Swedish legal system.
Anyone who reads this account of a muddled, drugged psychiatric patient being dragged through police interviews, therapy and trials, comes away with a sense of wonder at the intractability of power. The author comments: ‘The Quick story will keep rolling until absolutely the last question mark has been straightened out, which for my part means that the job is far from done.’
Sadly, Hannes Råstam, one of the finest investigative journalists of his generation, passed away last year from cancer. One hopes and believes that others will continue this debate. Few will achieve the clarity and persuasiveness of his book.