Viewers were invited to act as members of the jury in the trial of Lars Koch, a military pilot who disobeyed orders and shot down a hijacked Lufthansa Airbus A320 that was headed towards a packed football stadium. On board the plane were 164 passengers and crew. In the stadium, there were 70,000 spectators.

The programme was first broadcast by German network ARD in 2016. The majority of the public at the time voted that Koch should be acquitted. But what do students think?

Shoot down the plane

In the film, we saw how the terrorists refused to change the course of flight, even after a warning shot was fired. Koch was then instructed to stand by – but after 30 or so minutes, he argued with his superior: “If I don’t shoot, tens of thousands will die.” He proceeded to shoot down the plane into a nearby field, killing all people on board but sparing tens of thousands of lives in the stadium.

The German courtroom drama was adapted from a play by Ferdinand von Schirach and aims to give observers the power to decide on the ending: for Koch to be found guilty or not guilty. The entire film features the trial of Lars Koch, in which both the defence attorney and prosecutor make their cases. Afterwards, an online poll revealed that 79 percent of students present voted ‘not guilty’ and 21 percent voted ‘guilty’.

Those voting ‘guilty’ noted that this is what the German Supreme Court would realistically decide – if the law is not followed, greater issues would arise. Moreover, deciding ‘not guilty’ would be like complying with the desires of the hijackers, as it would indicate to the public that murder is acceptable.

Laws are fallible human constructs

Patrick Delaere, lecturer at the Faculty of Philosophy, also voted ‘guilty’. He distinguished between the pessimistic outlook of the prosecutors and the optimistic view of the defence. The former argued that humans live according to the principles of the constitution, without which civilization is doomed, whilst the defence proclaimed that laws are fallible human constructs and legal order cannot resolve every moral dilemma.

Most of those who voted ‘not guilty’ blame Koch’s superior, who failed to evacuate the football stadium. One student mentioned that Koch had made his decision for the ‘greater good’ and how each of us would probably have done the same in his place. Another law student believed that Koch should be found guilty but without punishment, to which many of the audience agreed.

After a second poll with the additional option of ‘guilty without punishment’, opinions changed. 53 percent voted for ‘guilty without punishment’, 33 percent for ‘not guilty’ and 14 percent for ‘guilty’.