A 27-year-old nurse nicknamed the "Angel of Death" appeared in handcuffs before a German court and begged for forgiveness as he faced trial on charges of murder and manslaughter in the country's worst serial killings case since the Second World War.
Stephan Letter is accused of murdering 16 elderly patients in his care at a clinic in Sonthofen, Bavaria, and causing the deaths of 13 others by injecting them with lethal drugs. The deaths occurred between January 2003 and his arrest in July 2004.
In several cases his victims died only hours after being admitted to hospital. Others, who were recovering, had told relatives of their plans to go on holiday once released from the clinic. He is alleged to have killed a patient at his own request in only one case.
Yesterday, Letter, wearing a dark suit and grey-striped tie, appeared before judges in the Bavarian town of Kempten. He admitted causing the deaths of 12 patients and begged their relatives and his hospital colleagues for forgiveness: "I know that I acted completely contrary to the ethics of my profession," he said. "I wanted to help the patients out of spontaneous feelings of sympathy, although I now realise how catastrophically wrong my actions were," he added.
Relatives of Letter's victims, who were present in court, reacted to his statement with shock. "These excuses are utterly grotesque," said the 26-year-old granddaughter of a patient he allegedly killed.
Prosecutors dismissed Letter's claims that he wanted to "liberate" patients from suffering. "The accused wanted to be the arbiter of life and death," said Peter Koch, state prosecutor. "He selected his victims according to his own whims."
The Sonthofen clinic murders shocked Germany when the scale of the killings emerged in 2004. State prosecutors ordered the exhumation and examination of 43 patients who died at the clinic during the accused's time there. But a further 38 patients had been cremated.
Letter was taken into custody after police, acting on a tip-off from clinic staff, found huge quantities of the deadly drug lysthenon and other muscle relaxants had gone missing from the hospital. Letter was said to have injected his victims with a mixture of the drugs.
Doctors saidthat the number of deaths was not remarkable for a clinic specialising in treating the elderly and that Letter had chosen to work mostly at night. As a result the killings had gone unnoticed.
Letter has claimed that his previous work exposed him to the "horror of retirement homes" to which he did not want to subject his patients.
More than 80 witnesses are due to give evidence at the trial, which is expected to take four months. If convicted, Letter faces a sentence of life imprisonment.Reuse content