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The “Deventer Murder”

September 2007. English translation by Bernie Ranson. Dutch original by H. J. Vonk, February 2007.

Losing the trail

In the Dutch legal case that has come to be known as the “Deventer Murder” it appears that the Courts of Appeal at Arnhem and Den Bosch may have presided over a serious miscarriage of justice.
The origins of this tragedy can be seen to have both evidential and procedural aspects.
In order to consider the evidential failings we must travel back in time to 1999.

On September 25th 1999 the lifeless body of 60-year-old widow Jacqueline Wittenberg was found at her home at 157 Zwolsche Weg, Deventer.
Her husband, a psychiatrist, had died some years earlier.
Suspicion initially fell on her odd job man, but the detectives from the IJsselland police force and the Public Prosecutor soon shifted their attention to one Ernest Louwes, a tax consultant.

Ten days before her death the victim had amended her will, appointing Louwes as executor. Apart from a few bequests her entire capital would be put into a foundation named after her husband.
The aim of this proposed “Dr Wittenbergstichting” Dr Wittenberg Foundation) was to further the interests of his former psychiatric patients.

The sudden death of Mrs Wittenberg presented Louwes with a problem: what was he to do with the capital entrusted to him?
It was impossible to pay it into a bank account for the Foundation, as this had not yet been set up and registered with the Chamber of Commerce.
On the bank's advice he placed the funds into an account under the name Louwes, but added the annotation “Administration Account”.
In 2000 this perfectly above-board action was regarded by the Court of Appeal in Arnhem as a motive for the murder, but in their subsequent review the Appeal Court at Den Bosch struck this out as a motive, deeming it “non-proven”.

However, this supposed motive had set in train a whole series of assumptions which, together with an element of tunnel vision on the part of the police and the justice department, led with seeming inevitability to the conviction of Louwes by the court at Arnhem.

A knife and an umbrella found lying in mud in a residential area of Deventer, a little less than a mile from the crime scene, were taken for forensic examination to the national forensic service laboratories (NFI) at Rijswijk.
A sniffer-dog test pointed to Louwes as the perpetrator, and this, together with his supposed financial motive and the knife, led to his conviction in Arnhem in 2000, and a sentence of 12 years.

However the dog team, the Netherlands Forensic Institute and the pathologist had all got it wrong.
Following cases of fraud, sniffer-dog evidence has been legally discredited in the north and east of the Netherlands.
Not only that, but the shape and dimensions of the knife meant that it could not possibly have been the murder weapon.
Its blade was straight, while a bloody impression on the victim's blouse from the actual murder weapon came from a curved blade.
The wounds were 4 inches deep, the blade of the knife was 7 inches long.
The knife was an inch wide at a distance of 4 inches from the tip, while the slits in the blouse caused by the stabbing were only three-quarters of an inch wide.
Conclusion: the identification of this knife as the murder weapon was based either on incompetence or fraud, this time on the part of the National Forensics Institute.

Further assumptions were made about the sequence of Louwes's movements and the related timings.
At seven that evening in Utrecht, Louwes had signed the list of attendees at a study-group meeting.
According to the police he got into his car outside the Jaarbeurs building at around 7.30 pm, drove (on that busy shopping evening) along the E-8 via Hoevelaken to Deventer where he murdered Mrs Wittenberg shortly after 8.30, and was back sitting on his sofa at home in Lelystad between 10 and 10.30 pm.
This timeline, which also had to cover the removal of all traces of the crime (nothing of relevance was found either in the widow's house, or on Louwes's clothing or the upholstery in his car), is physically virtually impossible.

The underlying assumptions rest on a telephone call between Louwes and Mrs Wittenberg about a tax matter, made shortly after 8.30 and transmitted via a mobile phone cell in Deventer.
However the timing advance data, which could have shown Louwes's exact location at the time of the call, were never requested by the police from the phone operators, KPN.
Louwes himself stated that he had driven in the direction of Harderwijk and Wezep and then turned off for Lelystad. He missed his turn-off for Harderwijk because of traffic queues caused by a wide load, as was confirmed by road-workers.
He stated that he called Mrs Wittenberg after that, from the 't Harde turn-off.
According to some communications experts this signal may have reached the mobile phone cell at Deventer due to propagation, extended transmitter range caused by unusual weather conditions.
Others have suggested a possible recording error. The number of the cell at Deventer was 14501, that at t' Harde was 14801, and repairs had recently been carried out there.

The Supreme Court approved a request for a review of the case on the grounds that the knife could not have been the murder weapon, and referred the case to the Court of Appeal at Den Bosch.
It was now that the serious evidential errors began to be aggravated by a procedural derailment.

An understanding of this requires us to refer to the Dutch Code of Criminal Procedure.
In serious and complex criminal cases the law provides certain protections for the accused against the possibly excessive might of the Public Prosecutor, who acts as the case manager.
The aim is to provide what is referred to as “equality of arms”.
This is achieved through the intervention of a Public Counsel, during whose period of office the Court proper will temporarily stand down.
The Public Counsel's role is to appoint experts representing the public prosecutor and the defence. These experts are required to carry out an investigation on oath, a written report of which, open to inspection by both parties, is submitted to the Public Counsel. The Public Counsel then withdraws from the case, and the Appeal Court resume their presidency, taking account of the findings of the experts' report in their further proceedings.
This was not what happened in the present case.
The Public Prosecutor's appointed expert was not an expert in the terms of Article 233 of the Criminal Code as described above, but was instead merely an official from the Justice Ministry, a lab technician from the Netherlands Forensic Institute, who made a verbal report on behalf of his employer detailing a DNA investigation he had carried out not as an expert appointed by the Public Counsel, but rather in his capacity as a citizen. This procedure was illegitimate, and the Court thereby committed a basic procedural error, admitting flawed evidence which was not capable of supporting the indictment.

The DNA investigation itself was instigated as a result of the discovery of the murder victim's blouse.
When the introduction of the knife as evidence ended in fiasco, the Justice Ministry produced this blouse quite literally from the attic, namely the attic of the police station at Deventer where it had lain for four years.
Carelessly packed with other items from the crime scene, this blouse was passed around, unsealed, between the Forensic Laboratory at Rijswijk and the police stations at Raalte and Deventer, with all the opportunities this presented for contamination or even tampering.
While Louwes's DNA profile had been held in the NFI database since 1999, the prosecutor at Den Bosch had cheek swabs taken from Louwes shortly before the hearing in 2003. Shortly thereafter, DNA from Louwes was found on the blouse, embedded in what were termed flecks of the victim's make-up. This was regarded as showing a link to the murder, although Louwes's DNA was also found at locations other than the “flecks” mentioned.
However these flecks were never subjected to chemical investigation, and differ in colour from the make-up which her beautician claimed Mrs Wittenberg used.

The alleged relationship of the DNA to the crime can be challenged on other grounds.
The DNA could have been transferred during the contact between Louwes and Mrs Wittenberg in the morning, for example through a sneeze, or when they shook hands.
The blouse might also have become contaminated due to carelessness during transport and storage, and even more so through the clownish actions carried out during the investigation, when the blouse was opened and re-closed at the crime scene, placed inside out on a tailor's dummy in a dirty room, and so on.
Equally remarkable is the disappearance of a cardigan, worn by the victim over her blouse, which might well bear traces of the murderer.
The minute traces of y-chromosome contamination found beneath the victim's nails fall into the same category: they seem quite out of proportion, given the horrific explosion of violence during the murder.

A barely detectable spot of blood, linked to Louwes and found inside the collar of the blouse can hardly be regarded as cut and dried evidence.
There is no logical association whatever with the murder.
Using photographs and information from the newspapers we have carried out a reconstruction (something the police never did), and this seems to indicate that the victim had been “worked over” from the front.
Having delivered a blow to the back of the head, the perpetrator dropped on his knees on the woman's ribcage, in the hallway close to the front door. This broke almost all her ribs. During her strangulation her larynx, hyoid bone and her face were seriously damaged.
The murderer then dragged his victim, probably already dead, into the room on her back.
Having laid her beneath the portrait of her husband, he stabbed her 7 times between the ribs.

Certain deductions can be drawn on the basis of the nature of this killing.
There was some relationship between the perpetrator, the victim and her late husband.
It appears to have been a ritual murder and an act of revenge.
It suggests that the murder was the act of a psychopath.
There is no explained link between Louwes and the crime.

Meanwhile the investigations into a different suspect, someone known to the victim, were suspended for unexplained reasons.
This suspect however did have a motive: he believed that the change to Mrs Wittenberg's will meant that he would now receive a much smaller bequest than he had previously expected.
It also seems probable that he bought a Global knife, of the type used in the murder, in Arnhem on the Saturday when the body was discovered.
His guilty knowledge is demonstrated by a conversation he had with a girlfriend and the manager of the Roman Catholic cemetery at Deventer, the day after the murder and before the body was found.
Telephone records show that his alibi, provided by his girlfriend, was false.
The pair were not at home at the time of the murder, and were not seen in public in the student union building “Brink 21”.

One final, curious circumstance is the following.
Two anonymous letters are associated with the crime.
One was discovered in the victim's garden, and contained an apology for a burglary.
The other was sent to the police during the investigation, and suggested that Mrs Wittenberg had been visited by gigolos.
According to the public prosecutor, analysis of the handwriting by the national forensic laboratory did not indicate that they had been written by the girlfriend of the alternative suspect.
However the names of four reporting officers, serving with the Apeldoorn police, were shown against the four tests taken. The policemen involved said themselves that they knew nothing about this matter. It would appear that, once again, the agency responsible for the detection of crime had themselves engaged in deception.


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