In a stunning turn of events, an Austrian on trial for imprisoning his daughter for 24 years and fathering her seven children pleaded guilty today to all charges against him — including negligent homicide — after hearing his daughter's heart-wrenching testimony.
In a change of heart, Josef Fritzl calmly acknowledged his guilt on the third day of a trial that has drawn media attention from around the world for its shocking allegations.
"I declare myself guilty to the charges in the indictment," Fritzl, 73, told a panel of judges, referring at one point to what he called "my sick behavior."
Fritzl faces up to life imprisonment on the negligent homicide count, which he initially had contested along with an enslavement charge. Prosecutors had also charged him with rape, incest, forced imprisonment and coercion.
Psychiatrist Adelheid Kastner, meanwhile, told the court today that Fritzl had a very serious personality disorder and would pose a threat to others even at his advanced age if freed. She recommended that Fritzl serve out his sentence in a psychiatric ward.
Asked by the presiding judge what had led him to change his mind, Fritzl said it was the videotaped testimony from his daughter Elisabeth. Fritzl, jurors and the rest of the court had viewed 11 hours of her testimony during closed-door sessions on Monday and Tuesday.
Officials would not confirm an Austrian media report that Elisabeth was in the courtroom yesterday.
Elisabeth was the prosecution's key witness against Fritzl. Now 42, she was 18 when he imprisoned her in the cramped, windowless cell he built beneath the family's home in the town of Amstetten.
The negligent homicide charge came for the death of an infant twin boy — Michael — born to Elisabeth in April 1996 who prosecutors say might have survived with proper medical care had he and his mother not been locked in the basement.
Fritzl expressed regret that he didn't bring the ailing infant out of the dungeon and get medical help.
"I don't know why I didn't help," Fritzl said. "I just overlooked it. I thought the little one would survive."
"I should have recognised that the baby was doing poorly," he added.
Wearing a mismatched grey suit and a blue shirt, Fritzl did not hide his face behind a binder today as he had done for the last two days when led into the courtroom in St. Poelten, west of Vienna.
After the plea change and the psychiatrist's testimony, officials adjourned the trial until tomorrow morning.
Legal experts say the jury will still have to deliver a verdict despite Fritzl's guilty pleas, although his confessions are grounds for a lesser sentence. The verdict and sentence for Fritzl are expected tomorrow after the prosecution and the defence give their closing statements.
Police say DNA tests prove Fritzl is the biological father of all six of Elisabeth's surviving children, three of whom never saw daylight until the crime came to light 11 months ago.
Three of the children grew up underground in Amstetten and the other three were brought upstairs to be raised by Fritzl and his wife, Rosemarie, who apparently believed they had been abandoned.
Prosecutors have alleged that Fritzl refused to speak to his daughter during the first few years of her ordeal, coming downstairs only to rape her. They said the rapes sometimes occurred in front of the children, and described Elisabeth as a "broken" woman.
Elisabeth and her six surviving children, who range in age from 6 to 20, have spent months recovering from their ordeal in a psychiatric clinic and at a secret location.
Fritzl's lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, said he had not been aware of Fritzl's change of heart before today's session.
"He didn't discuss it with me," Mayer said, adding that Fritzl asked to see a psychiatrist after yesterday's session. "It must really have shaken him up."
Mayer declined to confirm an Austrian newspaper report that Elisabeth was in the courtroom yesterday, but said if one of Fritzl's victims had been present, it would have had a major impact on his client.
Court spokesman Franz Cutka neither confirmed nor denied Elisabeth's presence.
Kastner, the psychiatrist who met with Fritzl several times and put together a psychological profile for the court, said the Austrian had a deep need to control people. She said Fritzl had an ability to block out his crimes but knew what he was doing was wrong, acknowledging he had a guilty conscience when he went to bed at night and when he woke up in the morning.
"Fritzl is guilty for what he did," she said.
She said the large number of children Fritzl fathered only strengthened the control he had over his victim. "The more children, the more power," Kastner said. "This is about possession ... power ... control."
Fritzl had testified earlier this week that he had a difficult childhood and a bad relationship with his mother.
"The climate in his parent's house was marked by fear," Kastner said.
The Associated Press normally withholds the names of victims of sexual assault. In this case, the withholding of Elisabeth's name by the AP became impractical when her name and her father's were announced publicly by police and details about them became the subject of publicity both in their home country and around the world.
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