Why Child Murder Case From 20 Years Ago Is Making Headlines in Sweden

A gavel in a hearing room in Panama City
A Swedish prosecutor is reopening a 20-year-old child murder case after media reports suggested the original investigation was unfair. Carlos Jasso/Reuters

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A child murder case from 20 years ago is once again getting enormous attention in Sweden. Two young brothers—aged five and seven—were believed at the time to be responsible for the death of 4-year-old Kevin Hjalmarsson in 1998. But concerns over the way the investigation into the so-called "Kevin case" was conducted led the police to reopen the case in May. This has highlighted serious questions about the way children are treated in the country's legal system.

The Kevin case was one of the most high-profile murder investigations of the 1990s in Sweden—and the first in modern Swedish history where such young children were accused of having murdered another child.

The little boy was found dead by the shoreline of a lake outside the small town of Arvika in northern Sweden on August 16, 1998—the last day of the school summer holidays. He had been strangled and had bruises on his body. After being killed, he was dragged 30m from the seaside to a raft, where his grandfather later found him.

Two brothers accused

Initially announced as a drowning accident, the police soon changed their minds and said they suspected it was a pedophile case. But they were then to reach another conclusion: Kevin had been murdered by two brothers, Robin and Christian, aged 5 and 7 years old.

The younger brother had initially been interrogated by the police as a witness, along with 120 other children in the town. But the boy soon became the head suspect together with his brother.

At a press conference in November 1998, the police announced the conclusion of their investigation: The boys had killed Kevin. The police said they had confessed to the crime, but would not be prosecuted nor formally convicted because children younger than 15 years old cannot be convicted for crimes in Sweden. This meant that the case was never passed on to the district court. The boys were subsequently taken into institutional care for a while. Social services later tried to find a foster home for one of the boys but no family wanted to have him and he was finally allowed to return home. The boys both still live in Sweden.

Case file reopened

During the autumn of 1998, the case was in the news almost every day. It is now making national news again. In late April, the main Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter and the Swedish public television, SVT, began to reveal possibly serious flaws with the old murder investigation in a series of documentaries.

This was sparked by a neuroscientist, Rickard Sjöberg at Umeå University, who contacted the media because he found the interview techniques used in this, and other cases, to be unscientific.

Since then, parts of the police investigation have been made public, including police interrogations of the youngest boy. The material reveals that there were no documented confessions or technical evidence that supported the police opinion at the time. And no one can explain how young Kevin was dragged from the scene of the crime to the place he was found.

The boys' confessions came after more than 30 long interrogations, sometimes without a parent—and with methods that have been criticized as unprofessional. The new material also reveals that the boys may not have been around the crime scene at the time of the murder. Due to the new circumstances, the prosecutor decided to reopen the case on May 8.

SVT interviewed the two boys in its documentary series. Neither of them say they have any memory of the incident today, but they think they did not do it. Now in their late 20s, they have grown up in the eyes of society as "child murderers." Robin, the younger brother, said on the documentary: "There is no person in the whole world that will ever understand what we have been through, how we have felt and how terrible it has been." In a press conference on May 19, the two men—whose full names Robin Dalén and Christian Karlsson have now been released—said the SVT investigation was a big relief and thanked the media for helping them.

The right to the truth

In a painful way, the Kevin case highlights the challenges of involving children in crime investigations. Even if a child under a certain age cannot be convicted in a legal sense, the consequences are still very drastic for the child.

There could have been a possible way to avoid this outcome. In Sweden, it is possible to raise the question of guilt in court without pursuing a formal conviction, a process known as "bevistalan." But this was never used in the Kevin case. Instead, the prosecutor decided not to continue the investigation, thereby concluding the case without a trial.

Bevistalan is rarely used: to my knowledge there have only been two cases in Sweden since Kevin's murder when a court has assessed a case involving children without delivering a formal sentence. But I think the Kevin case should have been treated in this way—allowing for a trial of sorts for the minors suspected of the crime, but without the threat of conviction or punishment. This would have meant a higher burden of proof was needed from the police, which could have changed the outcome of the investigation. Instead, the case remained at the police level and was never brought to court, meaning nobody really assessed the evidence except for the police themselves.

The Kevin case shows that there is need for a repeated discussion of how to uphold children's rights in the legal system. The general legal principle that a person is always considered innocent until he or she is convicted of a crime must also apply to young children.

Titti Mattsson is a professor in the Department of Law at Lund University.