From Arafat To Euthanasia, When Death By Poison Is The Prime Suspect

Apple seeds are poisonous... Some more than others
Apple seeds are poisonous... Some more than others
Pia Heinemann

BERLIN - Yes, he has investigated cases of murder by poisoning, says Burkhard Madea.

The forensic pathologist at the University of Bonn, an expert in unexplained causes of death, recalls "a series of deaths about 20 years ago when a nurse deliberately gave old, helpless patients the wrong medication. The victims all died suddenly, but there was only one autopsy.” When the procedure revealed that the victim had been poisoned, five other bodies were exhumed; autopsies revealed they had all been murdered.

Poisoning deaths can be established years after a person dies. Skeletons and body residues can shed light on a person’s death long after it occurs. The subject is topical in light of on-going examinations of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s remains.

Twenty years after his death, former Turkish president Turgut Özal was also recently exhumed. Prosecutors ordered the procedure after witnesses reported suspicious circumstances surrounding his death.

Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman reported last week that experts at the Adli Tip Kurumu Institute of Forensic Sciences had found four toxic substances in Özal’s remains, including high amounts of DDT and traces of radioactive polonium.

"Finding traces of poison in the remains of somebody who’s been dead for a long time depends strongly on just how long, and under what conditions, the person has been in the ground," Dr. Madea says. A corpse in cool, dry conditions is usually better preserved than one in wet or damp conditions. Dr. Madea adds that experts also always take soil samples in case the substances stem from the soil.

And of course the poisons still have to be in the remains – "traces of substances like gas or narcotics that are inhaled disappear very quickly," says Dietrich Mebs, a toxicologist at the University of Frankfurt for over 40 years.

It is different with radioactive poisons like the polonium that was used to kill Russian secret agent Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Depending on the decay period and dosage, their presence can be proved long after death.

"In the 19th and 20th centuries, arsenic, thallium and E605 parathion were often used," says Madea. "But they’re not so widely available anymore, so you don’t see them used in murders anymore."

Proof is in the pudding

Dietrich Mebs remembers an attempted murder case from 30 years ago." A man wanted to poison his wife, so he mixed cyanide in her pudding but it smelled so awful the wife realized what was going on and called the police. They brought us the pudding to test."

However, without suspicion of foul play in a person’s death, there is no forensic examination. And if there is suspicion, the lab work has to be rigorous. "In forensic medicine and specialized labs, ways of proving the presence of poison are getting ever more refined," says pathologist Madea.

"You can detect tiny amounts of poison and then calculate how much the person had in their body at the time of death – and if in fact the poison could be a cause of death." This applies to both artificial substances as well as natural poisons.

Substances in the tissues are examined using high-pressure liquid chromatography or mass spectrometers. "Once I had a case where a man used snake venom to kill his mother-in-law,” says Mebs.

"The woman, who was quite old, had a fixed stare, and then suddenly died. Nothing unusual at her age, except that neighbors had observed that the son, who was not on good terms with her, had been hugging her a lot lately."

That seemed so unlikely that it aroused suspicion and an autopsy was conducted that revealed a pinprick hole in the woman’s shoulder. "The police found the equipment the man used to prepare the poison in his apartment."

Euthanasia – or poisoning?

A relatively new phenomenon is poisonings in hospitals and nursing homes – and, apparently, they aren’t all that rare. Since the 1970s, there have been many cases where nurses have killed off their patients out of greed or for attention. "All a nurse has to do, for example, is increase the dose of a patient’s blood-pressure medication; the patient will die from drug overdose," explains Dr. Madea.

Cases of poisoning in clinic or nursing home circumstances are particularly challenging to criminologists – as they are exceptionally hard to solve. Sick, older patients may be taking a great deal of medication, with many different substances. Both patients and those looking after them can easily lose oversight, making the situation easily exploitable. "But you do need the requisite amount of knowledge to do so successfully," Mebs points out: "Luckily, not all too many people possess it."

Mebs also points out that new medication is generally safer than older preparations. "Modern sleeping aids, for example, don’t contain any derivatives of barbituric acid so you can’t use them to commit suicide, much less kill someone. That ingredient in first generation sleeping aids led to many accidents and deaths. To all intents and purposes, modern sleeping aids are non-toxic.”

Murder by poison has traditionally been considered a favorite for women killers. However, says Dr. Madea: "Just as many men use poison to kill as women do.” Although there are no precise figures, "it is estimated that every year about 1,000 murders go undetected as such, and a large portion of those are probably murders by poison."

The only way to fight that, he says, is for doctors filling out death certificates to pay closer attention and particularly with older patients not simply automatically write “death from natural causes.”

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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