Austrian incest father Fritzl gets life in prison

March 19, 2009 7:36:00 AM PDT
Josef Fritzl was convicted of homicide, enslavement, incest, rape and other charges Thursday and sentenced to life in a psychiatric prison for holding his daughter captive for 24 years and fathering her seven children. Fritzl, 73, sat calmly and bowed his head as the verdicts by the Austrian jury 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. Officials said Fritzl would not be eligible for parole for at least 15 years, and psychiatric experts would have to concur with any decision to free him.

The other charges included 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.

In a surprise move, Elisabeth appeared in the court as it viewed her testimony. Fritzl's lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, said Fritzl decided to stop contesting the homicide and enslavement counts after seeing 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. She urged the jury to think about his daughter's nearly quarter-century ordeal as it considered how much time he should serve.

"Don't be duped like Elisabeth was 24 years ago," when Fritzl took her captive in a cramped, rat-infested dungeon he built beneath the family's home.

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 multiple rapes - some in front of her children.

The homicide charge stemmed from the 1996 death in captivity of an infant boy. Prosecutors contend the ailing newborn born to Elisabeth - 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 telling the court at one point that Fritzl 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.

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

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.

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

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