A German court Thursday handed a life sentence to a nurse believed to be the most prolific serial killer in the country's post-war history, for the "unfathomable" crime of murdering 85 patients in his care.
Judge Sebastian Buehrmann called Niels Hoegel's killing spree "incomprehensible" and acknowledged the trial left many families with painful unanswered questions.
The 42-year-old murdered patients selected at random with lethal injections between 2000 and 2005, when he was caught in the act.
The 85 victims Hoegel was convicted of murdering ranged in age from 34 to 96. He was acquitted on 15 counts for lack of evidence.
Hoegel has already spent a decade in prison following a previous life sentence he received for six other murders.
The exhumation and autopsy of more than 130 bodies were necessary to build the case for the prosecution.
Police suspect that Hoegel's final death toll may be more than 200.
But the court was unable to say for sure because of gaps in Hoegel's memory and because many likely victims were cremated before autopsies could be performed.
Buehrmann of the regional court in the northern city of Oldenburg said the number of deaths at Hoegel's hands "surpasses human imagination".
"Your guilt is unfathomable," he told the defendant.
"Sometimes one's worst nightmares fail to capture the truth."
He expressed regret that the court had not been "fully able to lift the fog" for loved ones about other likely victims.
- 'Horrible acts' -
On the final day of hearings on Wednesday, Hoegel asked his victims' families for forgiveness for his "horrible acts".
"I would like to sincerely apologise for everything I did to you over the course of years," he said.
Caught in 2005 while injecting an unprescribed medication into a patient in Delmenhorst, Hoegel was sentenced in 2008 to seven years in prison for attempted murder.
A second trial followed in 2014-2015 under pressure from alleged victims' families.
He was found guilty of murder and attempted murder of five other victims and given the maximum sentence of life.
At the start of the third trial in October, Buehrmann said the court aimed to establish the full scope of the killing that was allowed to go unchecked for years.
"It is like a house with dark rooms -- we want to bring light into the darkness," he said.
Christian Marbach, whose grandfather was killed by Hoegel and who has served as a victims' representative, welcomed the "big and clear verdict".
But he noted that many more families hoped they would find closure from the trial with a definitive explanation as to what happened to their loved ones.
"It can't satisfy us entirely. It is what was legally possible," he said.
Marbach said the families would now file suit against the two hospitals where Hoegel killed patients.
"We're finished with the defendant. Now we can bring those people to justice who made his crimes possible," he said.
After admitting on the first day of testimony to killing 100 patients in his care, Hoegel later revised his statement.
He now says he committed 43 murders but denies five others.
For the remaining 52 cases examined by the court, he says he cannot remember whether he "manipulated" his victims -- his term for administering the deadly injections.
- 'Collective amnesia' -
Psychiatrist Max Steller told the court during the trial that while Hoegel bears responsibility for his acts, he suffers from a "severe narcissistic disorder".
He "is always fundamentally ready to lie if that allows him to put himself in a better light", Steller said.
The defendant claims, for example, not to remember his first victim, who died on February 7, 2000.
However a serial killer never forgets his first victim, Steller asserted.
Driven by a desire to show off his skills in bringing patients back from the brink of death, Hoegel repeatedly gambled with the lives of vulnerable victims.
Most often, he lost.
While former colleagues in the city of Delmenhorst admitted to having had their suspicions about Hoegel, all the staff from Oldenburg who testified said they were oblivious to the body count stacking up on his watch.
Buehrmann appeared exasperated by what he called this "collective amnesia".
Ten of the witnesses are now facing possible charges for perjury.