The decision of the ECHR of February 16, 2021 in the case "Meng (Meng) v. Germany" (aplications No. 1128/17).
In 2017, the applicant was assisted in the preparation of aplications. Subsequently, the aplications were consolidated and communicated to Germany.
In the case, an aplications was successfully considered about doubts about the objective impartiality of the judge presiding over the applicant's case, who had previously participated in a separate trial, during which extensive conclusions were drawn that prejudged the applicant's guilt. The case involved a violation of the requirements of paragraph 1 of article 6 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CASE
The applicant was convicted of the murder of her husband in complicity with G.S., her partner at the relevant time. The chairman of the composition of the Darmstadt Land Court, which considered the applicant's case, was Judge M., who had previously been a judge-rapporteur in the previous, separate criminal case on charges of G.S. [in the murder of the applicant's husband]. The verdict in the G.S. case contained numerous conclusions regarding the applicant's participation in the crime. The applicant unsuccessfully appealed her sentence, claiming that Judge M. he was not an impartial judge in her case.
Regarding compliance with paragraph 1 of article 6 of the Convention. There was nothing to indicate that Judge M. would have acted out of personal bias against the applicant (subjective test). Therefore, the European Court had to consider whether the participation of Judge M. as a judge-rapporteur in the previous trial against G.S. led to an objectively justified fear that M. was not an impartial judge (objective test).
To begin with, the European Court noted that M. was a professional judge who was considered more trained, adapted and prepared than a people's assessor to distance himself from the content and conclusions of the previous trial against G.S. In addition, when considering the applicant's case, the composition of the Regional Court, chaired by Judge M. himself interrogated witnesses and received expert opinions, making new conclusions about the facts and carrying out legal analysis on their basis, without referring in any way and without relying on the conclusions from the verdict in the case against G.S. The established facts differed in some details from the facts established in the verdict in the case against G.S. Although these elements were important when considering whether the composition of the Land Court met the requirement of impartiality in the applicant's case, they did not exempt the European Court from considering whether the verdict in the case against G.S. contained conclusions that actually predetermined the question of the applicant's guilt.
The references in the verdict in the G.S. case to the applicant indicated that the applicant was not formally a defendant in this case; consequently, her procedural status as a third party (witness) in the case was obvious.
However, the applicant was not just mentioned in passing in the appealed verdict: the verdict contained detailed conclusions about the facts concerning the applicant and an assessment of the evidence also concerning the applicant. The Land Court presented its conclusions regarding the applicant as established facts and cited their legal qualifications, and did not call its conclusions only suspicions against the applicant. The firm conviction that the applicant was an accomplice in the commission of the crime was deemed necessary by the German Federal Supreme Court for the admission of G.S.'s guilt. The verdict in the G.S. case contained a detailed assessment of the exact role that the applicant played in the death of her husband, which went beyond the presentation of the factual circumstances of the case. The verdict should have been regarded as establishing the criteria necessary for the action to be considered a crime also in relation to the applicant: it described in detail not only the premeditated murder of the applicant's husband and the way in which the joint action plan with G.S. was carried out, but also the main motives of the applicant's own actions, namely that she presumptuously intended to obtain her husband's assets. Thus, it could be considered that the Land Court had made a legal assessment of the act also in relation to the applicant, since it established on the merits that not only G.S., but also the applicant acted out of selfish motives and that the applicant, therefore, participated (and was equally guilty) in the murder. These conclusions and value judgments in respect of the applicant were made despite the fact that G.S. he was charged in his case as the only criminal against whom it was established that he acted alone at the scene of the crime, and that the legal assessment of the applicant's actions apparently went beyond what was necessary for the legal qualification of the crime committed by G.S. The applicant's doubts that the Land Court, including Judge M., could have already come to a predetermined opinion on the merits of her own criminal case when formulating the verdict in the case of G.S. even before the consideration of the applicant's case, they were also confirmed by the assessment of the prosecutor's office carried out after the verdict.
Therefore, the applicant legitimately feared that Judge M., in the light of the text of the verdict in the case of G.S., had already come to a predetermined opinion regarding the applicant's guilt. The applicant's doubts about the bias of the Land Court in the present case were objectively justified.
Although a higher court in the hierarchy of Germany or the corresponding higher court of Germany could, under certain circumstances, correct the shortcomings that were committed by the court of first instance, the Federal Supreme Court of Germany, which had the power to overturn the verdict of the Land Court due to bias, left the verdict in the applicant's case and the sentence imposed unchanged. Consequently, the higher court did not correct the violations considered in this complaint.
The requirements of paragraph 1 of article 6 of the Convention were violated in the case (adopted unanimously).