Thursday, March 19, 2009

Austrian incest dad stuns court with murder plea

Josef Fritzl, the Austrian accused of imprisoning his daughter and fathering seven children with her, stunned his court trial on Wednesday by changing his plea to guilty on all charges.
The retired Austrian engineer said he decided to admit the previously denied charges of murder and slavery after seeing his daughter Elisabeth describe her quarter century of sexual abuse in a dark, damp cellar.
Although Fritzl could yet avoid a life sentence, a psychiatrist told the court that the 73-year-old should be placed in a psychiatric facility as he regarded himself as having been "born to rape".
The defendant, who had tried to hide from photographers and TV cameras earlier this week, made a tearful confession, saying: "I plead guilty to the crimes I've been charged with. I'm sorry."

Media reports that Elisabeth had been smuggled into court the day before and speculation that a face-to-face confrontation with her may have triggered Fritzl's U-turn were fuelled by his own lawyer.

"If some of the victims were present (in court) yesterday, that certainly must have had a strong trigger effect," said Rudolf Mayer .

A court spokesman would not confirm Elisabeth's presence at the closed-door session on Tuesday.

The retired electrical engineer had pleaded guilty to incest, rape and sequestration on Monday but initially denied enslavement and murder, for which he faces a life prison term.

Under Austrian law, the final sentence is softened in the event of a confession.

Despite Fritzl's guilty pleas, the jury will nevertheless have to decide whether to convict him and on what charges. A verdict is expected Thursday.

Asked by the judge what caused him to change his plea, Fritzl replied: "My daughter's videotaped testimony."

Fritzl had to watch Elisabeth's testimony on Monday and Tuesday and was questioned about his treatment of her.

Elisabeth Fritzl, now 42, and her children have sought refuge in a specialist clinic during the trial to avoid publicity. Authorities are attempting to give them a new start in life under a new identity.

Prosecutors have accused Fritzl of murder for letting a baby named Michael die shortly after birth in the cellar. Fritzl had maintained the baby was still-born and said he burnt the body in a boiler.

But he admitted Wednesday that he was present at Michael's birth and that he had developed breathing problems.

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

A psychiatrist told the court that Fritzl felt he was "born to rape," and said he should be placed in a psychiatric facility because there was a risk he would commit new offences.

"The danger is still very much there that he will reoffend if he is not treated," said Adelheid Kastner.

"It is necessary that he continue being treated until he can no longer be classified as dangerous."

When Kastner quizzed Fritzl as to why he had chosen Elisabeth, the third-eldest of his seven legitimate children, as his victim, "his reply was that she was most like me. She was as stubborn as me, as strong as me. The stronger your opponent, the bigger the victory," she quoted him as saying.

Three children were brought up to live with Fritzl and his wife Rosemarie while three lived with Elisabeth and never left the dungeon until their release last April.

The trial was adjourned so the three judges could compile a catalogue of questions to help the jury decide whether Fritzl was guilty as charged.

The questions would be read to the jury Thursday, after which defence and prosecution would make their closing statements.

The jury would then retire to reach its verdict, which need not be unanimous, but requires a simply majority.

Once the verdict has been reached, the jury and judges would together consider what sentence to hand down.

They could decide to send Fritzl to a mental facility, court spokesman Cutka told journalists.

Experts and judges would then review Fritzl's case on a yearly basis.

"If the expertise concludes there has been an improvement and he can be released from such a facility, he will then serve any remainder of his sentence (in a prison)," Cutka said.

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