'Prisoner poet' on trial for serial killings

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A MAN once hailed by the Austrian literati as a 'prisoner poet' and a convicted killer- made-good went on trial yesterday accused of the gruesome murders of 11 prostitutes from Austria, the Czech Republic and the United States.

Johann Unterweger - who prefers to be known as 'Jack' - looked ill-at-ease as the charges were read out in the packed courtroom in the south-eastern Austrian city of Graz. His lawyer, Georg Zanger, immediately asked for the case to be dismissed because of what he termed the 'hate campaign' against his client in the Austrian media that precluded the possibility of a fair hearing.

The trial, the most sensational in Austria since the Second World War, is set to last at least two months as prosecutors try to establish that Mr Unterweger was responsible for the prostitutes' murders, all of which were carried out between September 1990 and July 1991.

By their own admission, the evidence is circumstantial. In the absence of any witnesses, their main case rests on the charge that the accused was in the vicinity of each killing and that samples of hair and clothes from some of the victims were found in his car when he was arrested in Los Angeles in 1992.

The prosecution will also argue that the manner of the murders - strangulation with parts of the victims' own underwear - was identical to Mr Unterweger's killing of an 18- year-old German girl in 1974, for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment two years later.

In addition to tricky legal considerations, the case has already sparked fierce controversy in Austria over whether convicted killers should ever be released early, and under what circumstances.

Many Austrians have been openly scornful of the many artists and writers who adopted Mr Unterweger as a cause celebre in the late 1980s after the publication of his autobiography, Purgatory on the Road to Prison, and several poems, and who successfully fought a campaign for his early release in 1990.

'At the time, psychiatrists described Mr Unterweger as a model prisoner and a good candidate for rehabilitation,' said Detlev Harbach, a journalist on Vienna's Die Presse newspaper.

'He became a star of the literary scene,' Mr Harbach said. 'It became chic to go and listen to the convicted killer give his readings in cafes. Not many of those who supported him then like to talk about it now. And many Austrians are already convinced that the decision to set him free was a big mistake.'

(Photograph omitted)