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Thursday, May 23, 2024

State apologizes for grave miscarriage of justice

For the second time in a week, new DNA technology has ended up clearing a convicted Norwegian man of both murder and sexual assault. Norway’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Jørn Sigurd Maurud, issued a new formal apology, this time to a no-longer young man from Kristiansand who spent two decades in jail.

The state prosecutor’s statement clearing Viggo Kristiansen and the public apology were carried live on national news Friday. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

“I will in the strongest of terms apologize for the injustice that has occurred,” Maurud said at a press conference in Oslo Friday afternoon. “I will ask the court of appeals to acquit Viggo Kristiansen.”

The wrongly conficted Kristiansen, now age 43, was only 21 when he and a former teen-aged friend of his, Jan Helge Andersen, were arrested and charged in a case that became a national trauma: Two little girls, aged eight and 10, never returned home after going swimming in a popular lake in the hills above Kristiansand (known as Baneheia) on an unusually warm day in May 2000. After a massive search, their bodies were later found. Both had been raped and murdered.

Kristiansen was widely (and wrongly) viewed as the main defendant in what became known as the Baneheia case, and sentenced in 2002 to Norway’s toughest prison term of 21 years with forvaring, a special form of custody aimed at protecting the public that could have kept him in prison for life. Andersen, meanwhile, was sentenced to 19 years and was released before Kristiansen also was, in 2021.

Kristiansen had always claimed innocence in the case, while Andersen implicated them both. Norway’s Supreme Court, however, ordered Kristiansen’s release last year after his case finally had been taken up for review and new DNA evidence suggested Andersen had acted alone. Andersen, meanwhile, was taken into custody once again and now faces a new rape and murder trial. Andersen has only been charged with the murder of one of the Baneheia victims, 10-year-old Lena Sløgedal Paulesen. Those charges are now likely to be expanded.

State Prosecutor Maurud said on Friday that he now has no doubt that Kristiansen was innocent all along. “The background for that is that all the evidence now gathered in the case clearly does not present reason for the prosecution of Kristiansen … in the Baneheia case,” Maurud said.

The clearly regretful prosecutor, who took on his job long after the Baneheia case was initially in the courts, said he and his colleagues will now “do everything in our power to get to the bottom of this case. My message to those left behind (the families of the two girls) is that I understand the trauma they’ve been through and that they now are left with questions they haven’t had answered.”

Maurud added that the investigation into the new case against Andersen has not been concluded. He declined further details about it now.

It was just last week that police and prosecutors also cleared the cousin of another victim of murder and sexual assault based on new DNA technology. An apology was also issued in that case and compensation claims are pending.

New DNA evidence and technology has played a key role in clearing Kristiansen. Only Andersen’s DNA could now be identified, not Kristiansen’s. Maurud said that until recently, criminal technicians thought they were dealing with two sets of DNA but the second is now believed to have simply been “polluted” samples of the single DNA.

“In summary, my evaluation is that there is no DNA evidence behind the central premise on which Kristiansen was convicted,” Maurud said. “There is no DNA evidence to prove Kristiansen is guilty.” He also questions Andersen’s testimony, claiming now that it’s not in line with the DNA evidence.

“It’s clear to me that this case has had deeply tragic consequences, especially for Kristiansen who has spent more than 20 years in prison and thus been deprived of a great portion of his life,” Maurud said. “His closest family have also suffered an enormous loss. I will therefore, on behalf of the prosecuting authorities, apologize in the strongest of terms for the injustice that has occurred.”

Police had also never managed to pin Kristiansen to the crime scene through use of mobile telephone data, and Kristiansen’s long-standing defense attorney Arvid Sjødin had for years sought to reopen the investigation. Prosecutors at the time were reluctant, and commentators have often questioned whether a potential loss of prestige played a role in all the roadblocks to reopening the case. It finally was taken up again, in 2017, and the commission reviewing new evidence reopened the case in February 2021. That’s what led to Kristiansen’s ultimate release in June of last year.

Sjødin has already told reporters that he intends to mount a major compensation claim against the state on Kristiansen’s behalf. He told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Friday morning that the claim may amount to more than NOK 30 million (USD 3 million at current exchange rates).

“This is a man who has lost his entire working life,” Sjødin told NRK. “He has lost the ability to raise a family. He has lost everything with regards to leading a normal live. Therefore he has a rightful demand for compensation.”

Kristiansen declined comment himself, and was photographed by media leaving his parents’ home in Kristiansand to head off on a hike Friday afternoon. His brother, Trond Kristiansen, however, told NRK that the family was relieved, to say the least.

“This is very, very nice, a fantastic feeling,” he told NRK. “It was expected, but still very special. Mama, Papa and Viggo were home when the news came.” Berglund



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