The Wurtstoffer Defence
By Simon Barget
“Mr Krappachnik. You’ve heard the prosecution’s case against you. You stand accused of the murder of Miss Brigitta Saveloy who you followed home and stabbed twice after she entered your shop on the 16th of June. The knife is at Exhibit A. It was found at the scene bearing an identical match to your fingerprints.
She died later that evening from loss of blood and the doctors were unable to save her.
The post mortem corroborates the prosecution’s case.
As a postscript, Miss Saveloy was an upstanding member of the community, who’d never done any one the slightest bit of harm.
You have pleaded not guilty, am I correct?”
“I plead the Wurtstoffer defence, my Lord.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The Wurtstoffer defence. R v Wurtstoffer 1962, House of Lords.”
“I’m well aware of the case, Mr Krappachnik. You stand accused of murder without legal representation, and you intend to plead the Wurtstoffer defence?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“My Lord, I’m a reasonable man. One of the things I’m most certain of is that I treat others fairly, even if I don’t always like them. I’ve made it my business to do this, not as a means of selling more dresses, but as a moral imperative. My behaviour is entirely rooted in my character. I’m not stating this to invoke sympathy; I merely want to tell the court what I believe to be true about me insofar as it is possible for a man to speak about his own character with some degree of objectivity.
“I am not a gregarious or effusive man; I make no grand gestures; I wear subdued clothing, and drive an unremarkable vehicle. You might say that customer service is not my proper arena. But I love to serve the public. I love to meet new people and find out about them, although I’d guess that if you were to meet me in my shop, you’d think I was quite serious; helpful but serious. But certainly not a profit-hungry salesman. My dress shop is at the lower end of a modest high street selling the upmarket designs of a variety of little-known but well-regarded French designers. The clientele is all word-of-mouth, we very rarely get passing trade.”
“Mr Krappachnik. This courtroom is not looking for a disquisition on your character, merely a defence of the case held against you....”
“My Lord I fully understand, but the recounting of a short life history is entirely relevant to the particular defence I plead, since as we know, the Wurtstoffer defence is a justification for one’s actions, even in the offence of murder.”
“Mr Krappachnik, two things: Firstly, you’re grossly verbose, more than taking up the time of this courtroom which has other business to attend to, secondly, the Wurtstoffer defence has only once been pleaded successfully in forty-seven years, and this by a minor.”
“Apologies, my Lord, I’ll be as brief as possible. The lady who I now know to be Miss Saveloy came in my shop at about 5 o’ clock. There were no other customers. I looked up out of instinct, struck by her long black hair, her slight feline figure, and her very high stilettoes. She had one of those oversized designer handbags clutched to her side. This was a woman all too aware of her own beauty, a woman well practised in using her looks to get what she wanted. I admit I thought she’d think she was too good for the shop; but I was determined to behave with circumspection. I greeted her with a brief glance from behind my little counter, and then a subtle smile, one where you extend the lips out to the side almost minutely, merely to evince the intention of a smile and warmth, but without requiring the other person to go to the trouble of greeting you back. One must always consider the needs of the customer and defer accordingly.
She ignored this, she ignored me. It was as if I were no one. I wonder now what she thought but it doesn’t really matter. Maybe she thought I was the owner’s son because I still look very young. Far from it; my father died many years ago, and I’ve successfully managed the shop ever since. She can’t have thought I was a customer. She might have thought I was a sales assistant I suppose. I thought of leaving it there and allowing her to wander through the shop for two minutes -- it would have been no longer than that -- and watching her walk out without buying anything. But something compelled me to say: ‘Can I help you?’ which as we know set a whole chain of unwanted events into motion. I’m not saying that Miss Saveloy’s death wouldn’t have occurred but for the question. I’m just not sure what made me ask it. There was only a tiny note of curiosity to it. Perhaps I just wanted to speak up for myself.
‘Where are all these things made?’ she then said.
She fingered the blouses as if the material was leprous. She spoke haughtily and with contempt, managing to communicate without actually acknowledging me. I’m not exactly sure how she did this; I mean I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was about her demeanour that was so entirely dismissive. She was the most bored person in the universe, and I was the cause; I’d forced her into the shop just to subject her to unendurable tedium. She had a million better things to do, a million better places to be, a million more worthy and interesting people to carouse with. I was lucky to have her there.
But I moved out from behind my desk in an attempt to be helpful and we were in very close proximity almost face to face. Her eyes were focussed on me, but I know she didn’t see me; acknowledge me. All the while I had to pretend; I had to face her as if she were treating me as a human being, I had to feign apathy. I had to treat her with respect.
Now to the defence. It was in this courtroom that the pioneering and controversial research of Dr Langley was first applied in Wurtstoffer, having gradually gained credence in psychiatric circles since its publication. The research essentially demonstrated the possibility of the death of the ego. Test cases were subjected to a prolonged period of stringent mental harassment specifically designed to nullify any fields of true communication between them and any other human being, the stimuli carefully tweaked to bring about a complete eradication of the subject’s sense of self. After the trial, the test cases were shown to have no psychic vital signs whatsoever. They were dead. It was possible for one person to completely extinguish another’s sense of self.
The son in Wurtstoffer took the test and was found to be dead inside. Then the court found that this loss of self was entirely consistent with the reported actions of the father and could be attributed to them.
To prove murder in a court of law, you need to show not only that the act occurred but that the actor intended it. The defence adduced substantial evidence that the father’s intention in Wurtstoffer came through his awareness that the natural and probable consequences of his actions would be the death of his son’s psyche; akin to an abdication by the son of his own mental faculties. The murder was construed to consist of a series of actions on behalf of the father culminating in what the judge called the ‘straw that broke the boy’s back’. The son was a mere appendage. He did whatever the father wanted, in terms of work, dress, social activities. He felt obligated to thank the father afterwards for attending so closely to his needs even though this attention was entirely unwanted. They lived like this in apparent normality for many years until he couldn’t take it any longer.
Self-defence is a proper defence to the offence of murder. The son had had no other option but to raise the golf club to save his own ego, just as he would have had no other option if his physical existence had been endangered. He had absolutely no intention of killing the father despite the apparent brutality. He was experiencing the potential extinction of his ego and his actions had to be interpreted as analogous to the actions of someone experiencing the subjection of severe physical force. The force he used was found to be reasonable in all the circumstances, and it was a very grave and unexpected occurrence that the father’s wound proved fatal. Indeed the son never managed to successfully grieve the passing of his father.
I had never thought the defence to be legitimate until I met Miss Saveloy, until I did my own research into the case. I would never have imagined that I’d be in this position. I felt the cold hands of death on me as soon as she entered the shop. I felt I was fighting for my life. I didn’t want to lay down and die, I prized and cherished the life I had been given. I’m convinced she wanted to see me dead, that she wanted to take away my sense of self. There was something so intent and relentless in her bearing. I know it sounds preposterous, but I can’t find any other explanation for my behaviour. It’s totally out of character. I have no other way to account for my actions.”
“Mr Krappachnik. You’ll never be able to evince intention on Miss Saveloy’s part. Just because she looked at you in a dismissive way? Because she was haughty? Because she didn’t feel like she had to show you common courtesy? It’s hardly tantamount to mental cruelty or the extinction of the self. And no one has used the results of Dr Langley’s test in court since the original case. Even if it found you were psychically dead, how could you prove this was because of Miss Saveloy and not because of all sorts of other factors? I’m really not sure the Lords in that case applied the law correctly to the facts. In any case, the events in Wurtstoffer unfolded over the course of some years. In Wurtstoffer, Mrs Wurtstoffer testified at length against her husband which proved to be a substantial evidential boon for the defence. You have no witnesses.”
“I know it all happened so quickly and I appreciate that is a crucial difference between my facts and those facts. She didn’t just look at me in a dismissive way, my Lord. It was a lot more than that. When she left the shop, she brushed her shoulder against one of the mannequins, knocked it over and didn’t look back. She did it on purpose. Maybe she didn’t do it on purpose but how could she not have apologised or acknowledged what she did? I know what evil is now; it is to disregard the existence of another, it is this attitude of disregard, of complete disdain for another. It’s far worse than physical harm, since at least the commission of a harmful act demonstrates a position vis a vis another, at least it acknowledges their existence.
I wanted just to bring this to her attention when I followed her out; I wanted to see her reaction. But she was already in her car so quickly and had already managed to pull off. I got in mine and followed her. I wanted to know why she’d just treated me like that, why she’d just walked out and left. When I pulled up she was there by the front door. She’d have to talk to me now, give an account of herself. But as soon as she saw me, which she did, she just turned back towards the door and made to go inside. I literally ran from my car to stop her from getting away. I needed to talk to her. It was life or death for me. I had no intention of killing her, my Lord. I had the knife because I’d just been opening boxes. Then I lunged. I just lunged at her. I wasn’t even that conscious of where the knife was. It felt good, it was a huge relief. It was what I needed to do.”
There was a long heavy silence in the courtroom until the judge sighed.