- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

ST. POELTEN, AUSTRIA (AP) - An Austrian jury convicted Josef Fritzl of homicide and other charges Thursday and sentenced him to life in a psychiatric ward for imprisoning his daughter for 24 years, fathering her seven children and letting his infant son die a captive.

Fritzl, 73, sat calmly and bowed his head as the verdicts were read. He later told the court he accepted the outcome and waived his right to appeal _ bringing a dramatic end to a shocking case that has drawn worldwide attention.

Court spokesman Franz Cutka said Fritzl would be taken to a secure psychiatric ward for mentally deranged criminals.

The homicide count _ “murder by neglect” in German _ was the most serious of the charges against 73-year-old Fritzl, and the jury gave him the maximum punishment allowed by law.

The other charges included enslavement, rape, incest, false imprisonment and coercion. Fritzl had changed his stance and pleaded guilty Wednesday to all counts against him after he and the court viewed 11 hours of emotional videotaped testimony by his daughter, Elisabeth, whom he locked in a dungeon when she was 18.

“I regret it with all my heart … I can’t make it right anymore,” Fritzl told the court Thursday, hours before the verdicts were announced.

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.

Erich Huber-Guensthofer, deputy head of the prison where Fritzl has been held, said he would remain under a suicide watch.

The deputy prison chief said Fritzl will remain in the St. Poelten jail 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.

Authorities will decide where Fritzl will serve his sentence once they receive a written copy of the verdict.

Fritzl will undergo yearly assessments in the psychiatric ward of the prison he eventually ends up in. If he is deemed cured, he would be transferred to the general population to serve the remainder of his sentence.

In a surprise move, Elisabeth appeared in the court as it viewed her testimony Monday and Tuesday. Fritzl’s lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, said Fritzl decided to stop contesting the homicide and enslavement counts after seeing her in the courtroom and watching that heart-wrenching videotape.

Prosecutor Christiane Burkheiser had called for the maximum punishment in her closing arguments in Fritzl’s trial in St. Poelten, west of Vienna, urging the jury to think about his daughter’s nearly quarter-century ordeal as it considered a sentence.

“Don’t be duped like Elisabeth was 24 years ago,” she said, referring to when Fritzl locked his daughter in a cramped, 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 to believe they were abandoned by Elisabeth when she ran off to join a cult.

Eva Plaz, a lawyer for Elisabeth and the other victims, urged the jury not to lessen Fritzl’s sentence just because he pleaded guilty. In Austria, guilty pleas can be a mitigating factor.

Fritzl’s pleas “were not a confession,” Plaz said, adding that Elisabeth’s main reason for testifying was that she believed she “owed it to her child, Michael.”

Mayer, his lawyer, did not argue that Fritzl was innocent _ even admitting in court that Fritzl had raped his daughter 3,000 times. But he said Fritzl had been plagued with guilt for the past 24 years, and asked the jurors to take a hard look at the homicide charge.

Mayer said Elisabeth made no mention in her diary of her baby’s struggle to survive, noting instead that Fritzl brought her a crib, that both twins were born without incident and that their names were Michael and Alexander.

“The life sentence was a consequence of his confession,” Mayer told reporters after the jury’s decision.

Psychiatrist Adelheid Kastner told the court Wednesday that Fritzl had a serious personality disorder and would pose a threat to others if freed.

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 the sale of his 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 wishes 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.

___

Associated Press Writer William J. Kole in Vienna contributed to this report.

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