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Accused Nazi Child Killer Goes Free

DW staff/AFP (jb)
March 24, 2005

Austrian justice officials have dismissed murder charges against a former Nazi psychiatrist, saying he is mentally unfit to stand trial.

Accused of taking part in gruesome deathsImage: AP

The Austrian government on Wednesday said it had dropped the case against a former Nazi psychiatrist accused of killing children at a Vienna clinic during World War II because he suffers from dementia.

"There will be no trial anymore as Mr (Heinrich) Gross is not mentally able to stand trial," justice ministry spokesman Michael Standl told AFP. "It is a definite and final decision."

Gross, 89, worked at the Am Spiegelgrund hospital in Vienna, where 789 sick and disabled children died after the Nazis, who supported euthanizing the handicapped, annexed Austria in 1938.

Nine counts of murder

He was briefly jailed after the war. In the early 1980s, a criminal court ignored a finding in a civil case that he was guilty of manslaughter.

Gross was again brought to trial in the late 1990s -- and charged with nine counts of murder -- after a former patient on whom he had allegedly experimented recognized him and realized he was working as a forensic psychiatrist for the Austrian justice ministry.

The case was partly built on a document found in the archives of the former East German secret police, the Stasi, which showed that Gross had been directly involved in the clinic. But on March 21, 2000 he was declared unfit to stand trial because of his poor health.

Standl said there had been new petitions to the justice ministry since, and that Gross had been examined by doctors last year who all concluded that he was mentally unstable. Parliament was informed of the decision by Justice Minister Karen Miklautsch this week.

"The condition is purely mental," Standl said. "He was examined three times by a doctor in the summer, and others ... agreed with him."

He said Gross managed to work as a forensic psychiatrist until 1997 at Vienna's regional criminal court and others in the capital "because the people did not know who he was."

Auschwitz Holocaust Gedenktag
Children in the hell of a concentration campImage: AP

The decision is a "scandal"

Green Party MP Karl Oellinger said the decision was a "scandal" and that Gross had fooled doctors and the courts.

"For decades as a forensic psychiatrist he decided who was fit to stand trial and who was not," he said. "And then he is brought to trial and suddenly he is unfit to stand trial."

"The justice ministry has always held a protective hand over Heinz Gross. It is very happy to close this case. It is a scandal and a shame."

Standl said Gross was the last Nazi against whom charges were still being investigated in Austria.

"There are no other cases," he said.

Johann Gross (no relation), a former victim of the psychiatrist, said he was not surprised by the justice ministry's decision.

"He still has a lobby behind him," he told AFP. "It is in the justice ministry's interest that nothing happens to him because he wrote 60,000 certificates for them in his 30-year career" as a court psychiatrist.

Gross said he had been a state witness at the trial in the late 1990s, whom he met when he spent several months in Am Spiegelgrund when he was a young boy.

"I still bear the scars," he said. "I was given injections, it took the form of punishment because I tried to run away repeatedly. I doubt that he is insane. We saw him in the media expressing himself clearly, with all his faculties. The story reminds one of (former Chilean dictator Augusto) Pinochet."

Horrifying tests

The extent to which euthanasia was practised by Nazis in Austria came to light when hundreds of jars holding body parts of dead children in formaldehyde were found in the cellar of Am Spiegelgrund.

Test were carried out on some of the remains, which showed traces of lethal drugs, before they were handed to families for burial.

Academics recently said they had found a document with Hitler's letterhead and signature in which the dictator ordered the euthanasia of mentally and physically disabled people.

Hitler's reportedly schizophrenic niece Aloisia died in the gas chambers at Hartheim near the Austrian city of Linz.