Austria's Fritzl gets life in psychiatric prison
Friday, March 20, 2009
ST. POELTEN, Austria -- Josef Fritzl was sentenced to life in a psychiatric ward Thursday for one of Austria's most notorious crimes: Locking his daughter in a dungeon for 24 years, fathering her seven children and letting one die in captivity as a newborn.
Fritzl, 73, sat calmly and bowed his head as a jury convicted him of all the charges against him -- homicide, enslavement, rape, incest, forced imprisonment and coercion. After locking eyes with his lawyer, he waived his right to appeal, ending a case that has drawn revulsion worldwide.
The homicide count -- "murder by neglect" in German -- was the most serious charge, and the jury gave Fritzl the maximum punishment allowed.
"I regret it with all my heart ... I can't make it right anymore," Fritzl told the court hours before the verdicts were announced.
Fritzl remained under a suicide watch, according to Erich Huber-Guensthofer, deputy head of the St. Poelten prison where Fritzl has been held.
Court spokesman Franz Cutka said Fritzl would eventually be taken to a secure psychiatric ward for mentally deranged criminals. Other court authorities said the exact facility had not been chosen yet.
Officials said Fritzl would not be eligible for parole for at least 15 years and judges and psychiatric experts would have to concur with any decision to free him. He will also have to pay court costs. The 11 months Fritzl already has spent in pretrial detention will count toward his parole.
Huber-Guensthofer said Fritzl will remain jailed in St. Poelten, west of Vienna, until he is transferred to Vienna's Mittersteig prison for assessment. There, experts will determine how dangerous Fritzl is and whether therapy might help ease the threat he poses.
During the trial, psychiatrist Adelheid Kastner told the court that Fritzl had a serious personality disorder and would pose a threat to others if freed.
Fritzl will undergo treatment as well as yearly assessments in the psychiatric ward of the prison he ends up in. Still, officials said if he was deemed cured, he would be transferred to the prison's general population to serve the remainder of his sentence.
Fritzl abruptly changed his stance and pleaded guilty Wednesday to all counts against him after Elisabeth -- the daughter he locked in a cramped, windowless cell when she was 18 -- showed up in court as 11 hours of her recorded testimony were played.
Lawyer Rudolf Mayer said Fritzl decided to stop contesting the homicide and enslavement counts after seeing his daughter and watching her videotape.
In her closing argument, prosecutor Christiane Burkheiser urged the jury to think about Elisabeth's ordeal and deliver the maximum sentence.
"Don't be duped like Elisabeth was 24 years ago," she said, referring to the moment when Fritzl tricked his daughter and locked her into the rat-infested dungeon he built beneath the family's home in Amstetten.
Elisabeth, now 42, and her six surviving children, who range in age from 6 to 20, have spent months recovering in a psychiatric clinic and at a secret location. Prosecutors described her as a "broken" woman after enduring constant rapes -- some in front of her children.
The homicide charge stemmed from the 1996 death in captivity of her infant son. Prosecutors contend the ailing newborn -- a male twin called Michael -- might have survived if Fritzl had arranged for medical care.
"Any amateur could have determined that the child was in the throes of death for 66 hours," Burkheiser said, arguing that Fritzl should be locked up for the rest of his life for refusing to intervene and save the baby's life.
Police say DNA tests prove Fritzl is the biological father of all six surviving children, three of whom never saw daylight until the crime was exposed 11 months ago.
The three other children were brought upstairs to be raised by Fritzl and his wife, Rosemarie, who was led by Fritzl to believe they were abandoned by Elisabeth when she ran off as a teenager.
Mayer, his lawyer, never argued that Fritzl was innocent. At one point in Thursday's closing statement, he even admitted that Fritzl had raped his daughter 3,000 times.
Like Fritzl, Mayer seemed resigned to the outcome.
"The life sentence was a consequence of his confession," Mayer told reporters after the jury's decision.
At a news conference after the verdict, court officials said Elisabeth could bring a separate civil case against Fritzl to seek damages for her suffering, adding there was no limit to what she could request.
They said the Austrian government would join in on bankruptcy proceedings that Fritzl recently initiated, and said the process could involve selling his seven real estate holdings -- including the house in Amstetten where he held his daughter.
They also said Fritzl would have to secure permission from Austria's Justice Ministry if he wanted to write and sell his memoirs.
The Associated Press normally withholds the names of victims of sexual assault. In this case, withholding Elisabeth's name became impractical when her name and her father's were announced publicly by police and details about them became the subject of publicity both in their home country and around the world.
Veronika Oleksyn reported from St. Poelten and William J. Kole from Vienna.