Austria Hastens to Close the Book on Ugliest Abuse Case

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Ronald Zak / ap

Journalists await the final verdict in St. Poelten, Austria on Thursday,.

The moment that changed the course of Josef Fritzl's trial was the unexpected arrival in court of his victim. Having initially pleaded not guilty to some of the charges in the case arising from his 24-year incarceration and repeated rape of his daughter in a squalid dungeon beneath his home, Fritzl reportedly broke down and wept when Elisabeth Fritzl, now 42, took the stand to testify against him. On Wednesday, he changed his plea to guilty on all counts, and on Thursday was sentenced to life imprisonment in a a psychiatric institution.

Fritzl had initially pleaded only partially guilty to the rape charges, claiming that his daughter did not resist his sexual advances. During the pretrial hearings, he even suggested she might have been "confused" while giving her pretrial testimony. Fritzl had also pleaded not guilty to the murder charge, disputed his daughter's accusations that he had been present during the birth of their child Michael in 1996 and had chosen not to take the infant to the hospital despite being aware of the severe breathing problems that led to the newborn's death three days later. (Read Fritzl's earlier version of events)

But according to Fritzl's lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, all of that changed when Elisabeth decided to come to the courtroom to confront her tormentor, who is also the father of her six surviving children aged five to 19. At the sight of his daughter, flanked by two hospital staff, sitting in front of him in the empty gallery of the courtroom, Fritzl "burst into tears," according to Mayer. The following day, he changed his plea to guilty on all counts. "I regret what I have done from the bottom of my heart," he told the court. "I cannot make things better for my family, but I can try to limit the damage." (See pictures of Fritzl's house of horrors)

The rapid four-day trial, most of which took place behind closed doors, left many in Austria unsatisfied. Many commentators have suggested that Fritzl's punishment — confinement in an Alpine psychiatric unit, where he'll receive intensive therapy and have access to a gym, sports facilities and courses in everything from foreign languages to cooking — did not fit his crime. "In theory, he could ask for his sentence to be reviewed and if the therapy proves successful he could be out in 15 years," a court spokesman said. But the spokesman rejected criticism of the court's decision, saying that the Austrian justice system aims at "bringing the offenders back within the norms of society" rather than simply enforcing a punishment.

Fritzl himself appears to have accepted the sentence, waiving his right of appeal. Visibly relieved, he walked out of the courtroom without burying his face behind a blue binder, as had done on the first three days of the trial.

Although legal experts and commentators will continue to debate the sincerity of Fritzl's sudden change of heart — some insists it was part of an elaborate courtroom strategy — the Austrian authorities are hoping that one of the most embarrassing affairs of the country's recent history has come to a close. Sitting behind a golden crucifix and two candles — standard appointments of every courtroom in the Catholic country — Judge Andrea Hummer made an unprompted effort to emphasize that it was Josef Fritzl sitting in the dock, rather than his country.

"This is not a crime of a region or of a whole nation," she said to the surprise of some international observers. But many questions remain —mostly posed by the foreign press — over how Fritzl's crimes had remained undetected despite what would seem to be obvious alarm bells.

Although chief police investigator Franz Polzer described Fritzl as a "nearly genius" villain who carefully concealed his thoroughly planned crimes, Fritzl was, in fact, a known sex offender who had been arrested at least four times for sex offenses (and once on suspicion of arson in insurance fraud), and had served a prison term for rape. Austria's social services had failed to properly investigate when Elisabeth, at age 16, ran away from home to escape her father's sexual abuse, which had started five years earlier. In 1984, when his daughter disappeared (into his dungeon), police did not question Fritzl's improbable story that she had joined a cult. And the courts later allowed him to adopt three of the seven children he fathered with his daughter, after he explained that they had been left by his runaway daughter on his front doorstep. Those three children were brought upstairs to live with Fritzl, and his wife, Rosemarie, 69, in the house.

Rosemarie Fritz was not called as a witness in the trial, or even questioned as a possible accomplice, because, the chief investigator said, "no wife would be able to accept such a thing if she had any knowledge about it".

As things stand, there will be no official inquiries into any failings by the various authorities that might have spared Elisabeth Fritzl much of her ordeal. As reporters were preparing to leave the final press conference about the case, a court spokesman asked them "cherish pleasant memories of Sankt Poelten."

  • The Crimes of Josef Fritzl: Uncovering the Truth, by Stefanie Marsh and Bojan Pancevski, will be published following the trial by Penguin in the USA and HarperCollins in the U.K.

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