JUDGMENT IN BERLIN by Herbert J. Stern
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An absorbing and disquieting account of an unusual trial--in which American concepts of due process squared off against American foreign policy concerns--by the no-nonsense judge who presided over the case. In August 1978, Detlef Tiede, an East German passenger on a Polish flight to East Berlin, confronted the air crew with a toy pistol and caused the plane to land in the American sector of West Berlin. . . not to mention in diplomatic hot water for Tiede and his companion Ingrid Ruske. West Germany, which grants East Germans a ""protected right"" to enter (if they can escape the East), saw the ""hijacking"" case as a hot potato; the United States (which had just signed an international anti-hijacking convention) was not eager to take the case, but the State Department felt compelled to act--if the ""free worM"" would not prosecute hijackers, how could it expect its political adversaries to do so? So the State Department removed from mothballs the United States Court for Berlin (established on paper in 1955 but never convened) and, after a few false starts, found New Jersey federal judge Stern to sit as its presiding judge, for the one case. Stern thought it would be interesting, a ""unique experience."" What he found, instead, was an Alice-in-Wonderland world in which: State Department lawyers calmly argued that, though the defendants were being tried in an American court, under American procedural rules, they had no constitutional rights at all, and certainly not the right to trial by jury (a jury of Germans, God forbid, who'd let them off); the defendants argued that their cases should not be dismissed without their consent (they feared the State Department would throw in the towel, if the trial seemed to be going badly, and then ship them back to East Germany); American authorities sought to cover up their detention of Ruske for two months without counsel; and, most amazing of all, the State Department (anxious for a conviction, and plea-bargaining in an attempt to get Tiede to waive the dreaded jury trial) arranged the enactment of a special parole law for Berlin, thus enabling the government to circumvent any ""excessive"" sentence Stern might impose. All of which simply fueled the ire of Stem, who granted the defendants' motion for a jury trial, stood up to heavy pressures from US diplomats (who may, in turn, have been reacting to Soviet presure), threw out the underpinnings of the case against Ruske on Fourth Amendment grounds, and, when the jury convicted Tiede of ""taking a hostage"" (he was acquitted of hijacking), sentenced him to time already served. Though Stem's self-portraiture as an embattled defender of the Constitution verges on the excessive, and he scants the foreign-policy concerns that made the case a nightmare for US diplomats, this unusual judge's-eye view of a very ""political"" trial--already hyped in the press--should attract readers outside the legal community.

Pub Date: April 11th, 1984
Publisher: Universe