The Josef Fritzl Trial – Day One
Posted by shadmia on March 17, 2009
The trial of Josef Fritzl, 73, – who for 24 years incarcerated and raped his own daughter who bore him 7 children, 6 of whom survived – has begun. Catch the story from the beginning in this 5-part video called The Josef Fritzl Story and read about developments in the case since being arrested and imprisoned on The Josef Fritzl Page.
On the first day of the trial news organizations from around the world descended on the Austrian town of St. Poelten to witness what some have called Austria’s trial of the century. Cameras were only allowed in the courtroom for the beginning of the proceedings.
Josef Fritzl is charged with 6 crimes: rape, deprivation of liberty, incest, coercion, slavery and murder. In court he pleaded guilty to 4 of those charges and not guilty on the other two:
Murder – Not Guilty
Enslavement – Not Guilty
Deprivation of liberty – Guilty
Incest – Guilty
Coercion – Guilty
Rape – Partially Guilty
On the rape charge he entered a plea of partially guilty, which is permissible. Fritzl could plead guilty to the rape charge in general but dispute the prosecution’s claims as to the degree of violence he used. Austrian law differentiates between the severity of rapes and levels of coercion, and takes into account the degree of violence used and the consequences for the victim. His lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, is expected to clarify Fritzl’s plea on this charge.
The trial began with the prosecution pressing for life imprisonment in an institution for the criminally insane. Chief prosecutor Christiane Burkhauser described Fritzl’s crimes as inconceivable. He “showed no sign of regret or any consciousness of wrongdoing,” she said.
In her opening statement, prosecutor Christiane Burkheiser described how, on 29 August 1984, Fritzl sedated his then 18-year-old daughter by putting a cloth over her nose and mouth and dragged her into the cellar. He then secured a chain around her stomach so she had no chance to escape. The next day he raped her. As she bore his children over the next 24 years, he repeatedly raped her in front of them, the court heard. She went towards the eight jurors with a box of musty objects and scraps of cloth, from the cellar where Elisabeth and her children had lived to give them an idea of the conditions in which they were locked up. “Smell these things,” she urged the jury, who flinched back in their seats.
“It was his playground. He used her like a toy,” said Burkheiser.
She told the jury to imagine living underground in a damp space just 11 metres square (118 sq ft) – the same size as the jury bench – kitted out with just “a wash basin, a sleeping corner, no warm water, no shower, no heating, and worst of all, no daylight” she said, adding it was also “incredibly humid” and the air was moldy and stale.
“They had to crawl on their knees in order to get around the dungeon,” she told the court. “It was damp and mouldy. The dampness crept into their backs and into their bones.” Only after nine years was the cellar expanded.
At other times, she said, Fritzl punished his daughter by shutting off the electricity _ plunging the dungeon cell into darkness for days at a time. “Josef Fritzl used his daughter like his property,” Burkheiser said.
Christiane Burkheiser, who is 32 and conducting her first major case since being made chief prosecutor, said that he had treated his daughter as a toy – an allegation linked to the enslavement charge, which Fritzl denies.
The defense lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, appealed to the jury to be objective and not be swayed by emotions. He insisted Fritzl was “not a monster“. Before the trial got under way, Mayer said his client was nervous. “He told me, ‘I’m scared, Mr Mayer’.”
Addressing the jury, Mayer said: “You need to keep emotions out of this. Even with someone like him who has been described as a monster, it’s irrelevant if he is an unsympathetic character or a monster.”
Mayer described how Fritzl had managed to care for “two families” – “you cannot call someone who does that a monster”. He added: “If you only want your daughter for sex you don’t want children. You would let them starve.”
As if to try to explain his actions Fritzl told the court that he had had a very difficult childhood. He told the three judges and eight jurors that, at the age of 12, he had made it clear to his own mother that he would not tolerate being beaten any longer and would defend himself.
“From that point on, I was Satan personified for her,” he said. She never showed him any affection and his father appeared only “rarely and sporadically”, he said.
In the afternoon session the court was said to have begun watching an 11-hour video testimony in which Elisabeth recounted her ordeal. The video was stopped at points for Fritzl to respond, said Franz Cutka, a court spokesman. The court will continue to watch it tomorrow.
Four expert witnesses are ready to give evidence if necessary: a doctor who specializes in newborns, a psychiatrist, an electrical engineer and a surveyor who inspected the dungeon.
Central to the trial is the accusation that Fritzl murdered, through neglect, a baby twin called Michael born to his daughter in the cellar in 1996. The boy had breathing difficulties and died when he was three days old. Prosecutors will argue that Fritzl could have saved his life if he had got medical help. Instead the baby died in his mother’s arms and Fritzl disposed of the corpse in an incinerator in his back yard.
If convicted of murder Fritzl faces life imprisonment. If not, the maximum sentence he could expect to receive would be 15 years. According to legal experts he could potentially be out of prison in six and a half years, having already served a year in prison.