Verdict Due in Austrian Incest, Murder Case | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 19.03.2009
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Verdict Due in Austrian Incest, Murder Case

The jury in the case of the 73-year-old Austrian man who enslaved and raped his daughter for 24 years is now considering its verdict. On Wednesday, Josef Fritzl pleaded guilty to all charges including murder.

Defendent Josef Fritzl with security guards in front of Austrian courthouse on Wednesday.

Fritzl entered courthouse without covering his face

Josef Fritzl dramatically changed his plea on Wednesday to being guilty of enslavement and murder, a charge that carries the highest penalty in Austria. One of the seven children Fritzl had with his daughter Elisabeth, died of medical complications shortly after birth.

In addition to enslavement and murder, Fritzl was also charged with incest and the rape of his now 42-year-old daughter. He had pleaded guilty to these crimes on Monday. The length of sentencing in Austria is not based on an accumulation of all charges, but the longest sentence is handed down for only one of the crimes committed.

"I plead guilty to the crimes I've been charged with," Fritzl told the court in the northern Austrian city St. Poelten.

Initially denied murder charge

Defendent covers his face with blue binder prior to start of incest trial.

Fritzl hid his face for the first two days of trial.

Fritzl had initially said the infant was still-born and that he had disposed of the corpse in an incinerator. Prosecutors charged Fritzl with causing the death in 1996 by denying the baby boy medical treatment that would have required hospitalization.

"I don't know why I didn't help," Fritzl told the court on Wednesday. "I should have noticed that the baby was not doing well. I just hoped it would survive."

Testimony triggered change of heart

When the judge asked him what triggered the change, Fritzl replied "My daughter's videotaped testimony."

Elisabeth Fritzl was not required to personally appear in court, but had given an 11-hour video testimony in which she described the years she spent in a damp, windowless bunker beneath the family home without hot water and heating. She told of being repeatedly raped by her father since her captivity began at the age of 18.

Three of her surviving six children grew up in the electronically locked bunker, having never having seen daylight. The other three children were taken upstairs to live with their grandparents in the small town of Amstetten.

Fritzl had explained to his wife and neighbors that the three who came to live above ground were abandoned on the doorstep as babies by Elisabeth who, he said, had joined a secret sect.

Victim appeared in court on Tuesday

Photo of the bathroom where Frtzl held his daughter

The celler where Fritzl held his daughter was cut off from the outside world

The Vienna daily newspaper Kurier reported that Elisabeth had made an unexpected appearance in the courtroom while parts of her videotaped testimony were being shown on Tuesday.

Only Elisabeth and one of her brothers provided witness testimony. Her other five siblings, her six surviving children and her mother, Josef Fritzl's wife Rosemarie, have exercised their right not to testify in court.

The clinic where Elisabeth and three of her children sought refuge when the scandal broke last April told the Kurier that Elisabeth went to court to gather impressions for a book she is planning to write about her ordeal.

Elisabeth and the children live in an undisclosed location and have been given new identities by the Austrian authorities to protect their privacy.

Psychiatrist: Fritzl accountable for deeds

After Fritzl dramatically altered his plea, a psychiatrist told the court that the defendant should be placed in an institution for mentally ill offenders.

"The danger remains very high that (Fritzl) will commit more offenses if he is not treated," psychiatrist Adelheid Kastner told the court. "He must continue to be treated until he can no longer be classified as dangerous."

In a 130-page report made available to the prosecution before the trial, Kastner had concluded that Fritzl suffered from serious personality disorders, but was nonetheless sane enough to be responsible for the crimes he committed.

"Fritzl suffers none of the mental illnesses that would rule out his accountability," she said.

Lawyer surprised by plea change

Detail of a poster painted by victims of the Austrian incest crime, which hangs in a window at the main square in Amstetten.

The family expressed its gratitude for public support

Fritzl's lawyer Rudolf Mayer told reporters he was completely taken by surprise when his client overturned his "not guilty" to murder and enslavement pleas.

Murder carries a life sentence in Austria and enslavement carries 20 years. Mayer argued that his client genuinely cared about his daughter and the children they had, who are also his grandchildren. Mayer said Fritzl had only wanted a second family.

The incest case made sensational headlines around the world and has attracted hundreds of journalists to St. Poelten. Initially conducted in closed sessions to protect the victims' privacy, the trial was opened to the public on Wednesday.

For the first time since the trial began, Fritzl entered the courthouse without shielding his face behind a blue binder. The hearings concluded on Wednesday morning when the three judges retired to discuss several points for the eight-member jury to consider before rendering a verdict.

The court is expected to sentence Fritzl after the prosecution and defense make their closing statements on Thursday.

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