Josef Fritzl, the Austrian man accused of holding his daughter Elisabeth hostage for 24 years in a windowless dungeon in the basement of his family home in Amstetten and fathering her seven children, pleaded guilty today to rape and incest but is now being tried on a murder charge in the death of an infant who died underground.
The district court in St. Poelten had indicted the 73-year-old retired electrician of murder, rape, incest, false imprisonment and enslavement.
During his almost 11 months at the detention prison, Fritzl has already confessed to investigators that he's guilty of incest and rape. But he denies the murder charge, which is the focus of this trial and which will determine whether he will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
The murder charge stems from the death of one of Elisabeth's children, the baby boy Michael, born to her in the basement in 1996. She has testified in pretrial investigations that the infant had serious breathing problems shortly after he was born, and that her father ignored her pleas to get help for the baby by saying "What is is."
Two days later, the infant died, and Fritzl later told authorities that he tossed the dead body in the wood-burning furnace of the dark cellar where he kept his daughter imprisoned.
A neonatologist, a child death specialist, hired by the court was present during Elisabeth's testimony, which was videotaped in a secret location before the trial began, and he confirmed that the baby could have survived if it had been given the proper care at the time.
The defendant, who was holding up a blue file folder to his face to shield himself from news cameras, was led into the courtroom by two police officers.
He sat down facing the judge, and his face did not seem to display any emotion as he listened to the prosecutor addressing the jurors.
"What you need to know is that we are faced with a situation that is almost beyond belief, beyond imagination," the prosecutor said in her opening statement.
"The man you see sitting here, could be your next door neighbor. He appears polite, well-dressed, well-behaving but he's conducted the most brutal crime you can imagine.
"Forget everything you've seen or heard about this case," she said. "His daughter's life was ... unbearable and he's showing no remorse whatsoever."
She then explained that for the first nine years of her imprisonment in the windowless room, Elisabeth Fritzl had no hot water, no shower, no heating, no daylight.
"Hard to imagine for any of us," she said, "He made her live like a slave, used her like a toy, raping her repeatedly and torturing her."
One day in the summer of 1984, he simply snatched his daughter shortly after she turned 18 and locked her up in the basement of the family home in Amstetten, where no one could hear her screaming for help, the prosecutor said.
He had told his wife and his other family members that Elisabeth had run away from home to live with a sect and everybody believed him.
During her first year as a prisoner, he bound Elisabeth in iron chains that were padlocked to a wall in the windowless dungeon, forcing her own father to become his sex slave, the prosecution maintains.