Peter Karlsson: The painful verdict on Swedish ice hockey player’s 1995 killing

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Peter Karlsson was one of Sweden’s most promising hockey players. In 1995 he was arrested, convicted of murder, and sentenced to life in prison for killing a man in a bar. The story of Peter Karlsson is often cited as a demonstration of how a group of friends can wreak havoc on a young person’s life. The Peter Karlsson case is in Swedish, and I won’t be able to do justice to it in English. The article is here

Peter KarlssonWhen Peter Karlsson was stabbed to death, he was 29 years old.

The cops were there when Leif Rohlin entered the locker area for a Saturday training session. They informed him that his former teammate and buddy had been murdered on the street not far from his home.

On that March morning in 1995, Rohlin, who had won Olympic ice hockey gold with Sweden the year before and would eventually play in the NHL, claims he can’t recall the precise words police used.

He can’t recall whether it was in the locker room that he discovered how horrific his friend’s murder had been, that he had been stabbed 64 times.

He can’t recall where he was when he first learned that a guy with neo-Nazi connections had been detained, or that police believed his buddy had been murdered after making a move at the man.

The only thing Rohlin recalls is that training was moved back one hour.

The next day, Vasteras faced a crucial play-off game. He recalls a minute of quiet before the whistle, and that they were well defeated.

Rohlin now admits, “It was absolutely ridiculous.” “There were a few of us out on the ice who were familiar with him. If that had occurred today, I don’t believe we’d be playing the game. We would have been allowed to take a breather.”

Peter Karlsson, a 29-year-old ice hockey player, died tragically more than two decades ago. The events that followed continue to enrage friends and campaigners.

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Karlsson was never seen again after a Friday night out in the spring of 1995.

According to court documents, the 19-year-old man who confessed to killing him was a member of a local skinhead group with ties to the neo-Nazi movement. In the three rounds of court cases that followed Karlsson’s death – eventually it went all the way to Sweden’s supreme court – the defendant maintained that what happened was not premeditated, that he had been “provoked”.

He said he ran across Karlsson on his way home after a night out in Vasteras, approximately an hour west of Stockholm. He said that they went in the same way for a bit before Karlsson told him he thought he was beautiful and grabbed his head.

The guy stabbed Karlsson in the chest, head, face, and back in the minutes that followed. One of the first police officers on the scene, a guy who had coached him as a young player, didn’t recognize him.

That night, there were no witnesses to what occurred. The court had to depend largely on the defendant’s evidence, which said that he was overcome with anger and fear. The cops discovered anti-gay propaganda leaflets while investigating his house.

Despite this, and despite the use of excessive force, the highest court maintained the initial verdict: manslaughter, not murder. The assailant was given an eight-year sentence.

Peter Karlsson in a Västerås team photoKarlsson was part of a talented group of Vasteras players.

The phone rang at the house of Curt Lundmark, the manager of Sweden’s national ice hockey team, the morning after Karlsson died. He answered the phone from his kitchen table, just up the road from Karlsson’s childhood home.

At the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in 1994, Lundmark led Sweden to their famous first Olympic gold medal. He had previously coached Karlsson as a young player at Vasteras for almost a decade.

He adds, “I simply sat there in disbelief, trying to comprehend what I’d heard.”

“Peter was the kind of person who would swing by and start up a chat if he noticed you were home; the type that made everyone around him smile.”

Lundmark kept a close eye on the case as it progressed through the Swedish legal system. Karlsson is still bothered by the way he was represented in court. He’s always felt the verdict was incorrect.

“I don’t believe the courts received enough information about what kind of person Peter was,” he adds, adding that no one in Vasteras would characterize him as anything other than harmless.

“They relied only on the account given to them by his assailant.”

Dennis Martinsson, an assistant professor at Stockholm University and a criminal law specialist, agrees. Details such as the anti-gay material discovered at the killer’s house, he believes, were also overlooked.

However, he claims that Sweden has made significant progress in recognizing hate crimes against minorities.

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A succession of homosexual men were killed in the 1980s and 1990s throughout the nation. As a journalist, Facundo Unia, a homosexual rights activist in Stockholm, covered several of these events. He thinks that the so-called “gay panic” defense helped many offenders receive lighter sentences for what he regards to be hate crimes.

In many areas of the globe, that legal tactic, in which defendants claim they were prompted by an unwelcome same-sex sexual advance, is still acceptable. “Gay and trans panic defenses remain accessible in most jurisdictions,” according to a 2021 study from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law in the United States.

Since 2003, when the Crown Prosecution Service issued guidelines on its “proactive approach” to “homophobic or transphobic offences,” the technique is believed to have decreased in the UK.

Unia believes that because of the prevailing attitude against homosexual people in the 1990s, the court had less compassion for the victims in these instances, allowing the offenders to get away with it.

“In these defenses, there’s an attitude of ‘that homosexual man came on to me, I simply had to get rid of him,’” Unia says.

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Former teammate Rohlin gestures to an empty space in front of one of the homes as he walks along the calm residential street where Karlsson was murdered, not far from Vasteras city center.

“There was once a plaque honoring the events that occurred right here. I’m not sure why it was taken down “He lets out a sigh.

Karlsson was part of a group of Vasteras young players that would go on to have a significant influence on Swedish ice hockey. Three of the Olympic gold medalists from the 1994 Lillehammer Games were friends and former teammates.

Patrick Juhlin, who heard of Karlsson’s death while playing for the Philadelphia Flyers in the NHL, recalls, “It was a horrible call to receive.”

“The first question is why and how anything like this could have occurred. There were a lot of phone calls in the end.”

Karlsson was a couple of years older than both Juhlin and Rohlin. When they joined the youth development team in Vasteras, he was one of the players they looked up to.

Rohlin recalls, “He was the first person you’d ask to a party.” “That man didn’t have a single negative intention in him. Throughout, he was pure pleasure and happiness.”

Rohlin at Karlsson's grave in VasterasRohlin, a former teammate, stands at Karlsson’s grave in Vasteras.

In the months after Karlsson’s death, Rohlin kept himself busy training for Sweden’s upcoming World Championship. The coach, Lundmark, told his players not to read the evening papers or watch the considerable coverage of the murder.

“I thought it was better to put everything behind us and concentrate as much as we could on the game,” he adds. He departed with three of his players in the midst of the team’s preparations to attend Karlsson’s burial at a crowded church in Vasteras.

Karlsson’s pals were taken aback when news broke that he had been murdered after making a move at another guy. Karlsson was not out and proud about his sexuality. He had discussed being homosexual with a handful of visitors at the nightclub the night before he was stabbed, according to court papers. When it came to his buddies, he never brought it up.

“It hurts me if he was homosexual and never felt comfortable talking about it with us,” Rohlin adds.

“In and of itself, it’s sad. We’d have a lot of in-depth discussions. Given how we know one other, it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t have told us.”

Karlsson’s team-mates have now long retired from professional ice hockey. Standing in front of a small grey tombstone in a graveyard outside Vasteras, Rohlin says his friend’s death still troubles him enormously, 26 years on.

“Whether the judgment was 12 or 24 years in jail, it wouldn’t really matter either way,” he says.

“It’s not going to resurrect Peter.”

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