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"Groupthink" behind Quick convictions

Published fredag 5 juni 2015 kl 09.52
"It's been the same people who have participated in almost all the investigations"
(4:48 min)
Sture Bergwall i centrum vid förvaltningsrätten i Falun 2013. Foto: Marcus Eriksson/Sveriges Radio.
Sture Bergwall (centre). Photo:TT

A Commission report into one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in Swedish legal history concluded on Friday that a case of "groupthink" led investigators to convict Sture Bergwall of eight murders.

"Groupthink" coined by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972, who investigated the faulty decision making process of JKF and his advisors during the Cuban missile crisis, is when members of a group do not want to rock the boat and challenge agreed ideas or views for fear of "shattering warm feelings of perceived unanimity".

The Bergwall commission was appointed 18 months ago by the previous government to examine how and why the justice system and healthcare professionals acted in convicting Sture Bergwall for eight murders in the 1990s, murders which he was acquitted for many years later.

In its conclusions presented to the government on Friday, it found that a case of "groupthink" was one of the major reasons why noone properly challenged the weak evidence and Bergwall's own confessions to over 30 murders.

Marie Heiderborg, Judge and member of the Bergwall Commission, told Swedish Radio News.

"It's been the same people who have participated in almost all the investigations. It's been the same people who led the interrogations, which have been the lead investigator and prosecutor. The same medical examiner, the same psychotherapists. And it has meant that critical thinking has not really come forward," says Marie Heiderborg, Judge and member of the Bergwall Commission, to Swedish Radio News.

But despite the variety of errors in the investigations, and even the great deficiencies in forensic psychiatry, the Bergwall commission is unable to find any conclusive systematic fault, says Marie Heiderborg.

"In summary, we have not seen that there are some major failurings in the legal system itself, but rather how it has gone wrong in this particular case," she says to Swedish Radio News.

How do you define systemic failure, this is after all a long series of mistakes?

"Yes, there is a long series of mistakes and it is how we define it. How we arrive at it and what we think is important is that the regulatory framework as such does not have any major flaws, but above all it is that the investigations have been customized too much on Sture Bergwall himself," Marie Heiderborg says.

The Commission has also laid a major responsibility on Sture Bergwall himself, who confessed to over 30 murders.

"Without Sture Bergwall this would not have happened, and the way he was involved throughout the journey. So, yes, he has been a major factor, an important ingredient of the whole."

Later, Daniel Tarschys, the Commission Chair and Professor of Political Science at Stockholm University told media at a press conference that they are proposing further changes beyond those already made in the legal system. These include providing an overview on the clarification of the rules around incitement and crime reconstructions.Also the Commission wants to monitor the quality in psychiatry and have more focus within county councils on forensic psychiatry.

Anna Ramberg, head of the Swedish Bar Association, told news Agency TT that the commission's conclusions are "reasonable." 

"The lawyer has an absolute duty of loyalty towards his client and has no obligation to start questioning his client's version. I believe that they were deceived like everyone else," she says to TT, adding:

"It's clear that the lawyers must ensure that the indictment is proven if they think that there is a situation where a person admits a crime that they did not commit. But the lawyer cannot go in and say that their client has not done this, although he admitted it."

Sture Bergwall's current lawyer, Thomas Olsson was also satisfied. He tells Swedish Radio News:

"It is satisfying that the investigation concluded that this legal scandal happened because of a few individuals hit by group thinking about a mentally ill person's drug fantasies. But one must of course also hope that the results of the investigation will now be the basis for further reflections on how to prevent it recurring in future"

Lawyer Claes Borgström, who represented Sture Bergwall, then Thomas Quick, in four of the trials that led to conviction, told TT that he is "disappointed" over the Bergwall commisssion conclusions.

"They are categorical in their opinion that lawyers committed a number of errors but I do not agree with it."
He also opposes the conclusion that the lawyers' inaction contributed to the convictions.

"You are looking at a pre-trial context, in police interrogations, and see that we lawyers have not been active there. It's never then as a lawyer. It is in the trial you are (should be) active, and I was. I questioned both psychologists, investigators and Bergwall himself."

Sture Bergwall was convicted of the murder of Johan Asplund, the eleven year old boy who disappeared in Sundsvall in 1980. Johan's father Björn Asplund now expects some accountability. He told SVT:

"I mean that if it is now the largest legal scandal in western modern history, there must be accountability. The deadlines have passed for the individual officers and then you have to ask who is responsible for the civil servants' professional activities? The fact that it is the state officials, the government who has the ultimate responsibility and some form of accountability, I expect," he says to SVT News.

Sture Bergwall's brother, Sten-Ove Bergwall questions the Bergwall Commission's conclusion that there is no systematic fault behind the Quick convictions.

"Then it is assumed that this is a unique case. But if it is not, it actually is the System. . . we cannot know because those in this case who are affected have no voice. I do not think this is a unique case," he says to TT.

Supreme Court Justice Göran Lambertz, who was previously Chancellor of Justice and insisted the convictions were sound, has taken note of the Bergwall Commission's conclusions. But he wants to wait before issuing a comment.

Under the name "Thomas Quick", Sture Bergwall was once thought to be Sweden's worst serial killer. He confessed to committing over 30 murders and was convicted in the 90s of eight murders, but after investigative journalists from SVT dug deep into the case in 2008, he later changed his name and revealed his confessions were all faked. After withdrawing those confessions, Bergwall was cleared of all charges.

He was released from the closed secure unit of Säter Hospital last year. He is now a free man. The murders remain unsolved.

Our journalism is based on credibility and impartiality. Swedish Radio is independent and not affiliated to any political, religious, financial, public or private interests.
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