Suicide ends saga of killer feted by literati

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The Independent Online
IN A twist worthy of one of his own novels, Jack Unterweger, a convicted killer turned celebrated author, hanged himself in the early hours of yesterday after an Austrian court had found him guilty of the murder of nine prostitutes.

Many Austrians expressed outrage that a man so clearly suffering from a psychological disorder had been left with the means - shoelaces and the elastic from his tracksuit trousers - and sufficient time to kill himself hours after he had been found guilty of the murders.

Others agonised over the possibility that Unterweger's last desperate act had been a protest over what he believed was a wrongful conviction and his sense of horror at the prospect of a return to a life behind bars. With most Austrians still reeling from the extraordinary sequence of events culminating in the suicide, it remains unclear what the long-term effect of the case will be on the country's detention policies.

The fact that Unterweger was convicted of the murders, however, is likely to strengthen the hand of those opposed to early release for prisoners serving life sentences or sex offenders. 'The likelihood is that judges will adopt a harder line in future,' said Reinhard Hunger, of the justice ministry. 'Every time a prisoner who is let out early re-offends it is naturally seen as a failure.'

In the case of Unterweger, who to the end protested his innocence, the sense of failure is particularly acute. In 1990, after serving 15 years for the murder of a German woman of 18, Unterweger was freed after leading figures in Austria's intelligentsia declared him a perfect candidate for rehabilitation. Unterweger was particularly feted by writers and artists, many of whom had been impressed with a collection of poems, children's stories and a novel he had written in jail. After his release, moreover, he became a celebrated figure, appearing on television talk-shows and giving readings of his works in Viennese coffee-houses.

'For a while it was chic to go to listen to the convicted murderer who had turned good,' said Detlev Harbach of Die Presse daily paper. 'But not many of those who supported him then like to talk about it now.'

The murders of which he was convicted on Tuesday night were of nine prostitutes from Austria, the Czech Republic and the United States, between September 1990 and July 1991.

Controversially, the prosecution was unable to call any witnesses to substantiate its case. Instead, all the evidence was circumstantial, resting almost entirely on testimony by forensic experts that a hair found in Unterweger's car when he was arrested in 1992 belonged to one of the victims, and the fact that the manner of the deaths - strangulation with items of underwear - was identical in each case.