ST. POELTEN, Austria, March 16, , 2009 -- 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.
Showing No Remorse
"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.
He continually tortured his daughter, forced her into slavelike conditions and coerced her to perform sexual acts several times a day, often for hours at a time and sometimes he would turn off the electricity to punish her, leaving her alone in the darkness for days at a time.
She was completely dependent on him, and became a broken person by decades of abuse and rape. He also threatened her to kill her and the children imprisoned with her by gassing them if they tried to escape.
Elisabeth is not attending the trial and neither are her children or any other relatives.
By videotaping her witness statement and using it at the trial, the Austrian authorities are honoring a promise they gave her shortly after she was freed in April 2008.
The officer in charge had promised her she would never again have to see her father for as long as she lived if she would tell police the truth about her and her children's ordeal.
Lawyer: Fritzl No Monster
It was then that the horrific details of the crime came to light and Fritzl was arrested and locked up.
The defendant's lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, urged the jurors to see the human being in Josef Fritzl and not the monster, as the Austrian media has dubbed him.
"This is not a monster. He did not plan to murder the infant. I don't expect you to accept what he did, but please be fair and see him for what he is, a human being who has done wrong and who failed, but that does not make him a monster."
Over the years, Elisabeth gave birth to seven children. Three of her children were forced to live with her in her cell, never seeing daylight until they were freed last year.
The other "incest" children were allowed to live upstairs with Fritzl and his wife, Rosemarie, after he pretended "he found the babies on his doorstep" -- the "foundlings" were carrying handwritten messages from their "runaway" daughter asking her mother to take care of the kids, messages Fritzl had forced Elisabeth to write.
Despite decades of abuse and separation, Elisabeth and her children have been reunited and are trying to come to terms with their lives.
They have lived in the care of counselors and psychologists for the first eight months in an apartment inside a local hospital, protected against intruders and with a team of specialists looking after them.
The government has given them a new identity and they are living at an undisclosed location in Austria.
The trial, which has attracted 200 journalists from all over the world to the small town of St. Poelten, is scheduled to last for four days. A verdict is expected this Friday.
Incest carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison, but Fritzl faces life imprisonment if convicted of murder. If he is not convicted of murder, he could receive a maximum sentence of 15 years on the charges to which he pleaded guilty.