The World

When We Faced Him

Our daughter, the journalist Kim Wall, was taken from us far too soon. When the trial came, her murderer had to look us in the eye.

A courtroom drawing shows a man sitting and speaking into a microphone while a woman in glasses glares behind him.
A court drawing by Anne Gyrite Schütt made available by Danish news agency Ritzau Scanpix shows accused Peter Madsen during his trial at the courthouse in Copenhagen, Denmark, where his verdict was spoken on April 25, 2018. Anne Gyrite Schütt/AFP via Getty Images

In August 2017, Swedish journalist Kim Wall was murdered while on assignment to interview Peter Madsen aboard his homemade submarine, the UC3 Nautilus, off the coast of Copenhagen, Denmark. Madsen was later convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison. This account of the days preceding the trial and its first day is written by Wall’s parents, Ingrid and Jocke, who are also journalists. 

This excerpt is adapted with permission from A Silenced Voice: The Life of Journalist Kim Wall by Ingrid and Joachim Wall, published by Amazon Crossing, July 2020.

Early March 2018

We’re ready. We know how this theatrical work is structured—we know how the news outlets function. Even so, we’re struck by the magnitude of interest on the part of the media when the first day of the trial approaches. It’s complete hysteria—a tsunami of inquiries, articles, videos, and everything else that has a connection to the submarine case. Every day, several hundred new articles tumble into our news-monitoring platforms. There are newspapers, radio stations, and television channels from places we can hardly locate on the map. Submarine, Copenhagen, and Kim Wall are words that orbit the world at high speed, around and around.

We’re endlessly grateful for our strategy to not give any interviews, statements, or comments. If we had relaxed that rule even once, we wouldn’t have gotten through this. It takes many hours per day to say no, in a friendly but firm manner, to all the inquiries that come in by telephone, email, and other means. We know that journalists have pressure to deliver,preferably information that nobody else has found. However, we’re not the ones who will be able to help them with this task.

More than 100 journalists from 16 countries have been given credentials to enter the courthouse in Copenhagen. We know that Jocke and I will be the main focus of the reporters this first day in court. Everyone wants to see us, see our reactions, get to witness our first meeting with Peter Madsen. We will be sitting a few yards from him—this man who has caused us immense pain, who has ruined our lives.

If Kim hadn’t gone out on the submarine with him, she’d still be alive. He claims he’s a captain, but a true seaman would never have gone out on the ocean alone in a 59-foot-long vessel, never mind dive to the bottom of the sea in it. The boat requires a three-person crew. There are no navigational lights on it, and there’s no equipment for surfacing if there’s a failure on board. Madsen ignored all of this on that Thursday in August, in the same way that he had apparently done many times before. He might never have another opportunity to demonstrate it, but he’s done enough damage already to make obvious his complete lack of respect for other human beings.

One comfort during these difficult days has been our work with Kim’s fund.

We’re participating in the process that will help us determine which young female journalist will receive the first grant in a couple of weeks—on Kim’s birthday, March 23. We have whittled the 140 applications down to 10, all of which are pitches for reporting that is important and interesting.

In order to increase interest in the fund, and in order to give the media a bone, we agree to an interview with the TT News Agency (Sweden’s national wire service). Our conditions are the same simple ones we laid down before: We only want to talk about the fund. It’s a good interview and an excellent article that is published two days before the trial. We focus on the fund and we focus on Kim’s work. Maybe this can somehow balance out the incredible number of articles that focus on Madsen. We’re also glad that Kim receives the Swedish Publicists’ Association South’s stipend posthumously for her work. We’ve known about it for a while, but now it’s official. Once again, in accepting, we emphasize Kim’s career as a journalist and what she did and what she stood for. Again, the impact in the media is great. A kind of balance is created after all, even though the scale tips rather heavily to Madsen’s advantage.

Kim Wall, within a crowd, is seen talking to a man holding and looking down at some papers.
Kim Wall. Joachim Wall

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The alarm clock rings early on this snowy Thursday in March, a day we’ve been dreading for a long time. Nonetheless, it’s a day we know we have to get through somehow. It’s International Women’s Day, a day celebrated all over the world with demonstrations and public displays for women’s equal worth and rights. We will be spending the day in room 60 in the municipal courthouse in Copenhagen.

The topic is the evening when a man and woman went out on the ocean together in a homemade submarine. Only the man came back; the woman was found later, maimed and in pieces. Now we will—maybe—get answers to all the questions that have tortured us since that August night.

During the months that have elapsed since Kim disappeared, Peter Madsen hasn’t had more than a peripheral place in my life. I have followed all the events in great detail and have come to the conclusion that no matter how often I thought we had reached bottom, we always fell even further. Peter Madsen is simply a shadow figure, a person I know exists, but about whom I waste no time thinking.

It’s probably a kind of defense mechanism. What energy I have, my body and I choose not to spend on him. He’s not uninteresting—after all, he’s been charged with robbing me of my daughter—but he’s not going to be allowed to move into my soul, my mind. I have no use for hate or revenge. Even under normal circumstances, these aren’t things that are typical for me, but no matter how I try, I can’t feel anything but apathy toward the man who somehow caused Kim’s death.

Peter Madsen has already cost us way too much, far more than any human should have to pay. If I allow myself to be caught up in feelings of hate and revenge, I’m the only one who has something to lose. He couldn’t care less. Life has to win, not death. Evil can’t be allowed to triumph.

And now the day has come when we’ll meet Madsen face to face.

Early on we decided we would participate in the trial, at least on the first day. The reason is simple, perhaps even primitive: We want to look our daughter’s murderer in the eye, and we want him to see us. The media presence is the largest in Denmark’s history. Early in the morning, the square outside the municipal courthouse—on Nytorvet, right next to the famous pedestrian street Strøget—is already full of reporters, cameras, and microphones. We don’t have to run the gantlet, fortunately. Our safe haven in the chaotic tumult is—as it’s been so many times before—Jens Møller Jensen, who led the Copenhagen police’s investigation. We park next to the police station and have time for a cup of coffee before we’re brought to downtown Copenhagen in an unmarked vehicle. We’re able to slip into a side entrance of the large courthouse without anyone noticing us.

Ingrid and Joachim Wall
Ingrid and Joachim Wall, parents of Kim Wall, are interviewed at the inaugural grant ceremony for the Kim Wall Memorial Fund at Superfine on March 23, 2018, in New York City. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

After going through security, we’re led through narrow corridors, spiraling stairways, and the law archives, until we finally reach room 60. It’s a room that reminds us more of a ballroom than the home of Lady Justice. Two majestic crystal candelabras hang from the vaulted ceiling, the windows facing the courtyard are high, and behind the dock there’s a sculpture on the wall that seems a bit out of place for a courtroom. To me it seems like a person in despair, holding his head in his hands. Perhaps it’s not so wrong after all; it may be that many feel that way when they enter the room. Farther back in the courtroom, there are about 50 seats, for the most part behind a barrier.

Journalists are already in their places. There was tough competition for the spots that were distributed through a special system: this many for the Danish media, this many for the Swedish, then the remainder to foreign newspapers and media companies. Another hundred or so journalists crowd into the court’s cafeteria, where they will follow the proceedings on large screens.

Beside the representatives for the press, there are eight black chairs. On the seats there are laminated cards with the text “Reserved for Next of Kin.” This is where we’ll sit. At the very back of the room, behind the journalists, there are corresponding seats for the next of kin of the defendant.

We wait in an adjoining room. There’s a thermos of coffee on the table, but it remains untouched. The time is almost 9:30 a.m., and we decide to walk out into the large room. Jocke takes his place at the front, closest to the wall, and I sit next to him. There are one or two familiar faces among the journalists, but nobody greets anyone. Today is different: Today we’re not old colleagues anymore. Today we’re parents of a journalist who lost her life in the sea 200 days ago.

I miss the moment when Peter Madsen enters the room. All of a sudden I see a person with black-framed glasses sitting at the side of his defense attorney. Although I’ve seen pictures of him thousands of times, I’m not entirely sure that it’s Madsen. I whisper to Jocke, who’s just as unsure as I am. The hair color isn’t the same as it is in pictures and on videos, and the glasses with their distinctly thick frames are misleading. It takes a few seconds before we’re completely sure—this is the accused, the man who threw our lives into an entirely new and terrible direction last August. I meet his gaze. He understands who I am and who Jocke is. I wonder what’s going through his head just now. Does he feel any remorse? Does he have any idea what kind of feelings we have? He looks down.

Then the judge comes in, and everyone stands up out of respect for her and her office. She’s the one, together with two laypeople, who will determine whether Peter Madsen is guilty of the crimes he’s been charged with. After the 12 days of the trial, the trio will come to a decision: acquittal or conviction. The prosecutor, Jakob Buch-Jepsen, spends a large part of the morning describing what has happened since Aug. 10: the search for the submarine, Madsen’s rescue from the sea after sinking the Nautilus, the search for Kim, and the finding of her body parts one after another. We’ve seen the pictures and videos shown on the large screens before, but it still hurts to see a smiling Kim in the submarine tower as the vessel glides out of the harbor in Copenhagen. Some of the pictures from the police’s preliminary investigation are macabre; the very worst ones are reserved for the judge and laypeople only—neither we nor the journalists are allowed to see them. When pictures of body parts and the tools the prosecution believes were used to maim her body are shown, we feel the reporters’ eyes on us. In Denmark, as in Sweden, photography in the courtroom is forbidden, but drawing is permissible. In the front rows, several artists are sitting, filling page after page of their drawing pads.

Madsen mostly looks down at the computer screen in front of him, but now and then he raises his eyes and looks in our direction. There are about 12 yards between his chair and our seats. After lunch he comes quite close—there might be only three yards between his place on the witness stand and our chairs. When he passes us on his way to be examined, I’m struck by how short he is. To me, Madsen seems small and stocky, slightly hunched, wearing a black T-shirt and a pair of royal-blue sweatpants that are way too big for him. He’s wearing a pair of tennis shoes that swing back-and-forth in a nervous way during most of the examination. He often puts his hands under his thighs. Is it so nobody will see how they’re shaking, or is this a habit of his?

For several hours, Peter Madsen is allowed to explain what happened on board the submarine, before and after. Since we’re sitting diagonally behind him, neither we nor the reporters can see his facial expressions. He answers most of the questions cooperatively but tries to avoid others. It takes a while before the prosecutor gets to the question that’s the central one for us: How did Kim die? The answer sounds well rehearsed, but obviously Madsen has had many long hours alone in his jail cell to prepare himself. Out of consideration for us, at first he doesn’t want to say what happened. Madsen thinks that it would be better for the family to believe that Kim died because the submarine hatch hit her on the head—that her death had been immediate.

Madsen says he didn’t want the world to know that Kim had actually died because of a technical failure of the submarine’s equipment, a flaw that allowed exhaust fumes to leak into the interior, where Kim was. Madsen himself was on the deck, and as the good sailor he was, he had of course closed the manhole so that sudden waves—on the calm sea—wouldn’t be able to run down into the submarine. Hundreds of questions hang in the air of the large courtroom, where oxygen is starting to get short this afternoon. Why didn’t Madsen call for help? is one of the most significant ones. He says he wasn’t able to carry Kim’s body up, although he tried for half an hour. Kim weighed about 110 pounds; Madsen weighed significantly more, if not double that.

We don’t get any answers today. The unanswered questions are like a cliffhanger in a television series—the sequel won’t be aired for 13 days. Is the long break a coincidence, because of the availability of rooms in the municipal courthouse? Or is it a marker in a psychological game? Is the first day supposed to “sink in” before the trial continues? We don’t know. When we leave the courtroom, we see that the only way out is right past Peter Madsen. There are only about 18 inches between us as we walk by. He meets my gaze, but this time he doesn’t lower his eyes. Maybe he believes that we’ve accepted his version of what happened.

Once again we leave the court building by a back door. As we walk toward the unmarked police car, we can see the media circus on the square in front of the main entrance. The prosecutor has been caught by the entire corps, and we’re thankful to have avoided being part of the strange performance.

There’s a silver lining on this dreadful day: The fund has reached its goal of $200,000. The fact that it happened on International Women’s Day feels like the work of a higher power. Whether we’ve heard the truth or lies in room 60 on this Thursday, Kim will continue to live. Despite everything.

A Silenced Voice: The Life of Journalist Kim Wall

By Ingrid & Joachim Wall. Translated by Kathy Saranpa. Amazon Crossing.