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Christer Pettersson, 57; Acquitted in '86 Killing of Swedish Prime Minister

September 30, 2004|From Associated Press

STOCKHOLM — Christer Pettersson, a petty criminal who was convicted and later acquitted in the 1986 assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme, died Wednesday, leaving unsolved the slaying that has haunted Sweden for nearly two decades. He was 57.

Pettersson died of brain hemorrhaging and organ failure, said Inger Rosell, a spokeswoman for Karolinska Hospital. He had a history of substance abuse.

Pettersson had been in a coma since Sept. 16 -- when he underwent emergency surgery for head injuries -- and never regained consciousness.

The cause of the injures was unclear.

He was the only person brought to trial for the Feb. 28, 1986, slaying of Palme, the charismatic leader who was gunned down as he walked home from a movie theater with his wife.

The killer fled down a dark alley.

The murder of Palme, who protested the Vietnam War, battled apartheid in South Africa and tried to mediate an end to the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, shocked Sweden and cast doubts on its cherished image as an oasis of tranquillity and nonviolence, where even the prime minister could stroll through the capital without bodyguards.

Pettersson was picked out from a police lineup by Palme's wife, Lisbet.

Although police never found the .357 magnum pistol used to kill the 59-year-old politician, Pettersson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1988.

The next year, he was acquitted after an appeals court cited a lack of evidence, including the murder weapon. The court also questioned Lisbet Palme's accuracy in picking him out.

Pettersson was awarded about $50,000 in compensation for his time spent in prison, and his lawyer said he was "marked for life."

In 1998, the Supreme Court rejected a prosecutor's appeal to retry Pettersson, ruling that despite claims that he could be placed at the scene of the shooting, on a busy downtown Stockholm street, the evidence was not strong enough.

Despite the acquittal, Pettersson once confessed to shooting Palme.

"Sure as hell it was me who shot [him], but they can never nail me for it. The weapon is gone," he said in an interview with Swedish writer Gert Fylking in 2001. He later retracted the statement and said he was not involved in the killing.

Despite an extensive manhunt, an $8.6-million reward and more than 14,000 tips, the killing remains unsolved, generating frustration among Swedes.

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