March 19, 2009 / 12:13 AM / 10 years ago

Austria's Fritzl says "sorry" for incest and murder

ST POELTEN, Austria (Reuters) - Josef Fritzl said on Thursday he was sorry from the “bottom of my heart” for locking up and raping his daughter in a cellar for 24 years as prosecutors demanded he be jailed for life.

Defendant Josef Fritzl arrives for the last day of his trial at the court of law in Sankt Poelten in Austria's province of Lower Austria March 19, 2009. REUTERS/POOL/Robert Jaeger

The 73-year-old Austrian, who fathered seven children with daughter Elisabeth, has pleaded guilty to incest, rape, enslavement and murder, by neglect, in the death of an infant son born underground in 1996.

“I cannot do anything more about (what happened) ... I regret this from the bottom of my heart,” Fritzl said in his closing statement at his trial.

Elisabeth’s lawyer said Fritzl’s remarks did not seem serious, suggesting he was only seeking a milder sentence.

The judge and jury retired to deliberate the verdict and sentence, both expected on Thursday afternoon. Under Austrian law, a guilty plea is not sufficient to convict someone.

Fritzl reversed his plea and admitted guilt on all charges on Wednesday after being overcome watching daughter Elisabeth, now 42, describe her ordeal in 11 hours of video testimony.

Defense lawyer Rudolf Mayer confirmed reports Elisabeth had attended the trial on Tuesday and said Fritzl was “devastated” when he spotted her in the gallery as the video was being screened.

Fritzl admitted enslaving Elisabeth in a purpose-built cellar under his house, and murder for the death of one of their babies by failing to seek help for his breathing problems.

If found guilty of murder by the eight-person jury, the maximum sentence is life imprisonment, the minimum is 10 years.

Under Austrian law, a confession can lead to a reduced sentence. The prosecution earlier asked that he be sent to a secure psychiatric hospital and the court could rule that he has to stay there indefinitely, regardless of his sentence.

Mayer, who said he had nothing to do with the plea change, said Fritzl expected to spend the rest of his life incarcerated.

In her closing argument, chief prosecutor Christiane Burkheiser said Fritzl had degraded Elisabeth to “a condition of total dependence and treated her like his property.”

“DEATH STRUGGLE”

She said Fritzl committed murder because he had 66 hours to seek medical care for the infant son, whose breathing problems were caused in part by his umbilical cord getting tangled around his neck, but did nothing and consciously let the boy die.

“He not only saw but listened to the death struggle of the infant — for 66 hours,” Burkheiser said.

Mayer argued that Elisabeth did not describe the newborn’s fight for life in the journal she kept in the cellar.

Burkheiser also said Fritzl had demonstrated “unbelievable manipulation skills,” for example by luring his daughter into the cellar by pretending he needed help carrying a door.

“Do not let yourselves be deceived as Elisabeth was 24 years ago,” Burkheiser said, referring to Wednesday’s confession.

Eva Plaz, Elisabeth’s lawyer, said Fritzl’s guilty plea should not be taken as a sign of remorse.

“Nobody knows the accused as well as my client (Elisabeth). I can say what you heard yesterday was no confession. Why did he only yesterday change his mind?” she said.

His expression grim, Fritzl entered court on Thursday ringed by a dozen policemen. He was wearing the same rumpled grey suit with a blue shirt and tie.

Prosecutors said the children held captive had never seen daylight and had to watch Fritzl repeatedly rape their mother.

“The basic need was for power. It is about domination, about power, about control,” psychiatrist Adelheid Kastner testified.

Fritzl’s abuses came to light last April when he took the eldest child to hospital after she became seriously ill.

Slideshow (17 Images)

Elisabeth and her six children, aged 5 to 19 at their discovery, and three of whom were incarcerated from birth, are now living in an undisclosed location under new identities.

Three of the children were raised above ground by Fritzl and his wife Rosemarie after he told people that Elisabeth had abandoned them and joined a sect.

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