On June 22, 2021, Swedish Parliamentary Ombudsman Per Lennerbrant published his final determination in his review of a Swedish prosecutor’s 2020 press conference surrounding Prime Minister Olof Palme’s 1986 murder, finding that the prosecutor’s actions violated the presumption of innocence of the named suspect.
On June 10, 2020, Swedish Prosecutor Kristoffer Petersson announced in a press conference that he was closing the investigation into Prime Minister Olof Palme’s murder despite its not being subject to a statute of limitations. During the press conference, the prosecutor justified his decision by stating he believed that the murderer was the deceased Stig Engström, previously considered an eyewitness to the crime. The media, in accordance with Swedish reporting practices of not disclosing the names of suspects, had dubbed Engström as “the Skandia Man” (Skandiamannen) because he had arrived at the crime scene from the headquarters of the nearby Skandia insurance company, where he worked.
The JO’s Determination
The Parliamentary Ombudsmen (Justitieombudsmannen, JO) oversee the public sector and are mandated by law to “exercise supervision over the application of laws and regulations in public activity.” (13 kap. 6 § Regeringsformen (SFS 1974:152) (all translations by author).) Specifically, the JO review whether public officials (including public prosecutors) abide by Swedish laws and regulations (2 § Lag med instruktion för Riksdagens ombudsman (SFS 1986:765)), and may both respond to public reports of misconduct and initiate their own reviews of conduct by persons who are subject to their legal review. (Arbetsordning för Riksdagens ombudsman.)
Shortly after the press conference, the JO initiated a review (initiativärende) of the prosecutor’s actions in connection with the press conference by requesting that the prosecutor comment on and explain his actions at the press conference.
Under Swedish law, a suspect, in particular when deceased, is protected from assaults on his or her person through the exercise of civil protections, among them the principle of presumption of innocence. In his review, the JO specifically cited human rights protections such as the right to a fair trial found in the Swedish Constitution (1 kap. 9 § and 2 kap. 11 § Regeringsformen (SFS 1974:152)), article 6.2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and article 48.1 of the Charter of the Fundamental Rights of the European Union, all of which include the fundamental principle of presumption of innocence. The presumption of innocence is further regulated in articles 3, 4.1, and 4.2 of European Union Directive 2016/343. In addition, the JO also referred in his review to other rules that regulate conduct by prosecutorial teams, including the Swedish regulation on pretrial investigations (1a § Förundersökningskungörelsen (SFS 1947:948)) and the Swedish National Prosecutor’s Ethical Guidelines (Riksåklagarens Etiska Riktlinjer). (JO Decision at 4–9.)
Applying the principles found in these legal texts, the JO made a holistic review of the press conference and also considered a previous TV appearance by the prosecutor on the program Veckans brott (Crime of the Week), where his statements, according to the JO, gave the impression that a complete solution to Olof Palme’s murder would be presented at the upcoming press conference. The JO found that the prosecutor ought not to have made such statements during the TV appearance and that they had built up the public’s expectations of finding out who the true murderer was during the upcoming press conference. Accordingly, the prosecutor should have addressed and dispelled those incorrect expectations during the introduction of the press conference. (JO Decision at 12.)
Although the JO found that naming Stig Engström as a possible suspect was unavoidable and thus appropriate, he determined that the prosecutor’s actions had violated the suspect’s right to a presumption of innocence and right to a fair trial. The JO specifically stated that, in his view, “basically no other circumstances … and no argumentation that could balance the detailed account of what, according to the prosecutor, spoke in favor of [the suspect’s] guilt, [had been] presented.” (JO Decision at 13.) In particular, the JO cited European Court of Justice precedent and a Swedish Supreme Court ruling (NJA 2013 s. 1055, point 11) which stated that “the presumption of innocence is violated when public officials have made statements that have encouraged the public to believe that the suspect is guilty.” (JO Decision at 7.)
In sum, the JO found that the prosecutor had violated the principle of presumption of innocence by inappropriately leading the public to believe that the final solution to the murder would be presented at the press conference and by not presenting contrary facts that spoke, or could have spoken, in favor of the suspect’s innocence. Accordingly, the JO issued a very sharp criticism of the prosecutor for “portray[ing Stig Engström] as guilty of the murder … without the issue of guilt having been determined by a court” and for failing to take the interest of the suspect into account as required under Swedish and European Union law. (JO Decision at 15–16.)
However, the JO did not assess whether the issue qualified as defamation of the deceased or violated article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (JO Decision at 16), nor did he consider the naming of Engström as a suspect to be in itself a violation of the suspect’s right to privacy, rather viewing his naming as necessary and in the public interest. (JO Decision at 11.)
The JO then went on to list several measures that the prosecutor might have taken at the press conference, including designating a prosecutor or other person to specifically represent Engström and presenting facts from a defense point of view, which “could have … [presented] a more nuanced picture of the circumstances as a basis for the suspicion [of Engström].” Further, the JO stated that, “[i]n accordance with the principle of objectivity, the prosecutor had a responsibility to take [the suspect’s] interests into account,” and that “more should have been done to achieve this.” (JO Decision at 17.)Finally, the JO criticized the naming of several witnesses during the press conference and the poor justification presented in the written decision to close the investigation. (JO Decision at 18.)