Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Daughter-Dungeon of Joseph Fritzl

**Update: Verdict

Joseph Fritzl
Joseph Fritzl

On Thursday, March 19, 2009, a jury in St. Poelten, in Lower Austria, found Josef Fritzl guilty of all charges. It took the eight-person jury just four hours of deliberation to convict Fritzl of charges including rape and incest against the daughter he'd imprisoned for 24 years, as well as of the imprisonment of their children and the murder-through-neglect of their son, Michael, who died just a few days after his birth. Judge Andrea Humer sentenced him to life in a psychiatric institution.

At the trial's Monday opening, Fritzl pleaded guilty only to charges of incest, coercion and the deprivation of liberty. He said he was not guilty of the enslavement and murder charges and he contested the wording of the rape charge. The prosecution had accused him of raping his daughter, Elisabeth, over 3,000 times.

Most of the trial was closed to the public, typical in Austria's secretive, privacy-fixated culture, but a slurry of disturbing new details emerged on this lost family's trapped decades. Elisabeth sustained injuries from her father's sex toys, and she lost several of her teeth going without medical or dental care all those years. The cellar was infested with rats year after year. Prosecutor Christiane Burkheiser stated that Fritzl barely spoke to his daughter during Elisabeth's first few years of imprisonment; he descended into the cellar silently, only to rape her. Burkheiser, just 32 and in office only 11 months before taking on this high profile case, vividly described the cellar's dark, damp conditions, passing dank items of clothing from the family's captivity around so that jurors could smell what the living conditions had been like.

On Monday and Tuesday, the court saw Elisabeth's grueling 11-hour videotaped testimony. She made a surprise appearance at the Tuesday session, slipping into a seat as her testimony played. Her court representative, Eva Plaz, said Elisabeth wanted to make sure her father was held accountable for his wretched actions, including young Michael's death from a respiratory problem that could have been treated. She wanted justice. Maybe even vengeance. When her father spotted Elisabeth, he blanched, and broke down.

Finally Josef Fritzl wept.

Wednesday, following closing arguments, Fritzl reversed himself and pleaded guilty on the charges of murder, enslavement and rape. Only when he watched his daughter's testimony and saw her in the courtroom, he told Judge Humer, did he fully realize how he'd hurt her. He told the court that he repented for what he'd done. His defense attorney, Rudolph Mayer, insisted that Fritzl was genuinely sorry, and that the old man could not help the deviant psychology that spurred his horrible crimes. This is consistent with Dr. Adelheid Kastner's testimony: She suggested that Fritzl's abuse-filled childhood left him with a need to abuse and dominate others — but she noted that he was legally sane and knew all along that what he was doing was wrong. Burkheiser viewed Fritzl's painful childhood as a distraction, and she warned the jury not to be swayed by Fritzl's apologies or to let down their guard, as Elisabeth had that day in 1984.

The judge asked Fritzl what he thought of Elisabeth's testimony, saying that surely Fritzl had known that young Michael's breathing problems were serious and that he should have brought him to a doctor. Fritzl insisted he thought the baby would get better on his own, but he acknowledged in the end that he should have done something.

Judge Humer followed Kastner's opinion that Fritzl was at risk of reoffending without treatment and should be placed in a psychiatric insititution. At the trial's close, Fritzl waived his right to appeal; he will not contest the ruling. He could be paroled in as few as 14 years, but if the court believes he may repeat his offenses, he will remain incarcerated.

Fritzl's new life is considerably more comfortable than the one he provided for his cellar-dwelling family. Along with access to the psychiatric institution's common areas, including a gym and a garden, he'll have a private room and shower, as well as his own television and computer—and plenty of natural light. He'll even have the opportunity to see whether he can treat a pet better than he treated his family.

Fritzl is supposed to pay all court costs, and though he has offered to make payments to his family, he has already initiated bankruptcy proceedings.

Locals expect authorities to bulldoze Fritzl's Amstetten house and its infamous dungeon.

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