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John Demjanjuk Convicted of War Crimes

After immigrating to the U.S. from Ukraine in 1952 John Demjanjuk lived a quiet life in suburban Cleveland. Then came accusations in the mid 1970s from several Holocaust survivors that he had been a death camp guard. He has continually denied those charges, claiming that he was himself a Soviet prisoner of war during that time. Over the course of thirty years, Demjanjuk's case has played out in courtrooms in the U.S., Israel, and most recently in Munich, where a judge has sentenced the 91-year-old to five years in prison.

MICHAEL SCHARF: Given his age, it's the equivalent of a life sentence.

War crimes expert Michael Scharf teaches law at Case Western Reserve University. He's followed the case for 20 years, and expects an appeal will take place in six months to a year.

MICHAEL SCHARF: I think also the fact that they've allowed him to remain free during the appeal might indicate that they're worried that he might not even survive to the appeal and they really don't want an old guy dying in their prison.

John Demjanjuk, Jr. confirmed that defense lawyers would appeal the verdict against his father. In a printed statement, the younger Demjanjuk said:

"My father has suffered as a result of German brutality for nearly 70 yrs. While the Germans arrogantly lay blame on a Ukrainian POW in an attempt to atone for the crimes of their own, we will appeal and continue efforts to obtain the mountain of information still being intentionally concealed by Moscow…."

That's a reference to information the prosecution withheld that Demjanjuk’s lawyers say could absolve him. Michael Scharf says that was a huge legal mistake, but he doesn't think it undermined the weight of evidence against Demjanjuk.

MICHAEL SCHARF: It's an amazing case study for everything that can go wrong and some of the things that can go right. Justice is messy, but that doesn't necessarily mean that justice has been denied.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.