DARMSTADT, Germany — A court here Friday convicted three American teenagers of murdering two motorists who were killed when the young men, bored and looking for adventure, hurled rocks from an overpass at cars on the autobahn below.
The teens entered the crowded courtroom in chains, their fashionably baggy pants rumpling around the leg irons as they shuffled to join their lawyers and parents to learn how long they would spend in a juvenile prison.
As Judge Bertram Schmitt read out their sentences--8 1/2 years for 18-year-old Jesse McGriff; eight years for Deo Bisessar, also 18; and seven years for the youngest perpetrator, 15-year-old James Wise--the courtroom was a study in shattered lives, from the weeping relatives of the victims to the still-baffled parents, siblings and classmates of the convicts.
The three Americans, who were 14, 17 and 18 at the time of the Feb. 27 incident, conceded during six hours of closed testimony that they had engaged in a contest to see who could score the most direct hit on a car. The highway is near the Lincoln Village U.S. military housing complex where the teens lived as dependents of American service personnel stationed in the Darmstadt area.
"Even after they knew they had hit several cars, they kept at it," Schmitt said, reflecting the court's incomprehension of the teens' motives as he read out a half-hour account of the case and the deliberations. "They stopped only when they heard the rescue vehicles approaching."
None of the three defendants had been in trouble with police before the incident, and all were good students and athletes and had close-knit families, Schmitt said. Those factors and the teens' remorse compelled the court to issue sentences less than the maximum 10 years allowed in juvenile cases, he explained.
Wise and Bisessar apologized to the relatives of 20-year-old Sandra Ottmann and 41-year-old Karin Rothermel, who were killed when the stones crashed through their windshields as they were traveling at least 60 mph, the judge noted. He also quoted McGriff as telling investigators that there was no punishment that would be too severe for his behavior.
"Why? That is the question even the boys cannot answer. What makes these ordinary, normal boys do something like this?" asked Hilde Patton of the U.S. Army's V Corps public affairs office. "No one can answer this, and that is what has all parents so upset and wondering what they might be doing wrong."
She disputed the impression left by some German media covering the case that the children of U.S. military personnel live isolated from their surroundings in American "ghettos." Some children from the Lincoln Village housing area--where 600 families live--go to German schools, and base officials make an effort to acquaint all youths with local activities and culture, she said.
U.S. Army Maj. John Bickers, a judge-advocate who monitored the proceedings to ensure that the teens were dealt with fairly, said he was satisfied that the defendants were accorded proper treatment.
Bickers also confirmed that the Army allows its soldiers to apply for compassionate assignments, which means that the parents of the three could stay in the area for the duration of their sons' detention if military authorities agree.
Defense attorneys, who had argued that their clients had failed to comprehend the real hazards of their actions because they had been desensitized by violence in films and video games, appeared to accept the sentences as a reasonable compromise to the 10-year maximum demanded by prosecutors.
"Their parents will probably accept that they had a fair trial," said one of the teens' attorneys, Bernd Kroner, adding that his clients could win early release after serving two-thirds of their sentences if they show good behavior.
But another of the teens' lawyers, Ulrich Endres, left open the possibility of appeal once the opinion of the court is published and more closely examined.
Although relatives of the victims had urged the court to impose the maximum penalties, Heinz Joachim Ottmann, the father of the younger victim, said he is satisfied with the ruling.
Under German corrections law, the teenagers will be transferred to an adult facility once they reach 24, unless they are granted clemency.