- A Body Does Not Just Combust:Racism and the Law in Germany
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A dead pig wearing a yellow T-shirt and dark trousers was burning in a custom-built shed. Outside, as the light gradually dimmed over the Irish city of Waterford, five of us peeled clementines and watched thin, ribbons of smoke waft out from the top of the door frame. [End Page 31]
It was August 2013, and this was the last fire test of the weekend. A group assisting the family of a man who burned to death in a German cell had invited me to attend these experiments. As a lawyer, I had observed the trial that acquitted officers of responsibility for the man's grisly demise. These activists had not been able to find any fire experts in Germany willing to participate in the most dramatic death-in-custody case since the country's reunification in 1989, and so we found ourselves in Waterford in the company of Maksim Smirnou, a former Belarusian police officer who specializes in arson investigations.
Eight years earlier, in 2005, an asylum applicant from Sierra Leone was burned, possibly alive, while chained by his ankles and wrists to the floor of a holding cell in a police station in Dessau, Germany. The man's name was Oury Jalloh, and the pig—fully clothed and chained to a mattress—was his proxy. The process of having to recreate the scene was as humiliating as it was traumatic, particularly for those who knew Jalloh. This investigation, however, was indispensable. Smirnou's goal was to ascertain whether or not Jalloh's body could have been so thoroughly scorched without the use of fuel or some other chemical accelerant.
It felt as though these tests, along with the very question of police involvement in Jalloh's death, had been banished to a place beyond the German border. These inquiries were only allowed to exist in exile, away from the fears and preoccupations of Germany's post-racial imaginary. As the smoke thinned and the fire died, we opened the shed doors to inspect the scene. We were shaken but convinced: Neither this pig's flesh, nor the mattress it was laid upon, resembled Jalloh's charred remains. (Of course it wouldn't, I thought, a body does not just combust.)
For legal reasons having to do with the production of evidence, the results of this fire analysis could not be entered directly into evidence in a new trial. But that does not mean Smirnou's work was shoddy science. In terms of the dimensions and materials of the cell, air circulation, mattress materials, clothing on the body, and alleged heat source, it was a fairly accurate recreation of Jalloh's death. The outcome, presented at a press conference, raised doubts as to whether the assumed circumstances of his death were even physically possible.
If one includes pretrial hearings and post-trial investigations, the Jalloh case had been active for almost a decade—and racism haunted the whole affair. One of the only explicit mentions of race entered the courtroom in the form of a telephone conversation, wherein the police testify to having called a doctor to ask if he could come to the station to draw blood from Jalloh, who they describe as a "black African." In the recording, the doctor complains that he is never able to find veins in "dark-skinned people," and the officer on the other end of the line instructs him to bring along a "special needle." That conversation, as chilling as it was coming in the last hours of Jalloh's life, was overshadowed by bigger problems—the overall mishandling of the trial, the harassment of the activists, and the distinct feeling that Jalloh's life was not worthy of thorough investigation. But the call did give context to the unspoken racial thinking that pervades German institutions by virtue of their social and cultural makeup.
TRIALS AND ERRORS
The Jalloh trials in 2007 and 2011 revealed myriad mistakes: Police were reported not to have informed the fire department that there was a person in the...