As the beastly Josef Fritzl faces a life in hospital, Cybershrink comments on what he perceives to have been serious faults of the trial. If justice was done, it was not seen to be done, he says.
It's time someone came right out and said it aloud - the Fritzl trial in Austria, has been very peculiarly handled. By now you'll know the story of the awful father who imprisoned his daughter for 24 years and fathered seven children by her.
In most jurisdictions, there would have been a proper, open trial, with cross-examination of the witnesses. including expert witnesses, and a serious attempt to get to the truth of what happened and how it was possible for this to have happened. This does not seem to have been the purpose of the Austrian proceedings, which seem strangely to have wanted to limit how much could be discovered.
The remaining mysteries
There are very serious questions which appear to be being skilfully avoided. These include:
- How could this have happened with no official suspicions or investigations over nearly a quarter of a century?
- How could the children he brought out of the cellar have been registered over the years, without any problems?
- Is it really credible that his wife could have been so pathologically incurious as not to have had any suspicions over all those years?
- Are there ways in which the welfare and other systems in Austria should be revised so as to make such things less easy to achieve?
Many such questions would be raised and examined in an ordinary trial, but the rush to judgement here seems calculated to avoid as many of these questions as possible.
Hysterical official over-reaction
There has been an almost palpably hysterical air of over-reaction all round. They even sealed off the airspace around the court-room. Were they expecting heat-seeking missiles from a Paedophile Support Group? Paparazzi helicopters with X-ray vision?
There was no realistic threat present needing such measures. We heard that a psychiatrist was present throughout the trial for the benefit of Mr Fritzl, tenderly available during and after each court session - and that psychological support was provided for the jurors, too. This is truly bizarre.
Why should an accused receive on-site hand-holding during his trial? Has this ever been done for any other Austrian accused of major crimes? And why should these jurors need counselling? Jurors survive cases with far more horrible evidence, quite unscathed.
Understandably, there was concern to protect the identity of the victims, while allowing them to testify. This was done by having Elisabeth, the primary victim, testify on video-tape, though apparently the lawyer of the accused was able to question her too. The decision to hear this evidence in closed court has never been adequately justified, as the tapes could have been shown to the judges, jury, lawyers and the accused, without the public in court being able to see and identify the witness.
The method chosen means that the public does not know what Elisabeth said, how Fritzl defended himself, or even whether the proceedings were conducted in a manner fair to all concerned. We were told that Elisabeth did not want to see him again - and then that she was secretly in court to watch the proceedings.
Even some expert testimony, such as that of a neonatologist, seems to have been withheld from the public, with the claim that this was also to protect the identity of the victims, which could not have been compromised by such evidence. The attitude and remarks displayed by the officials in the sparse news conferences held each day suggest people not used to ever being questioned and used to assuming that they always know what's best for everyone.
Odd psychiatric testimony
The psychiatric testimony was also most odd. A Dr. Adelheid Kastner made some puzzling comments. She later told a BBC interviewer that Fritzl is "as sane as you and I", yet she had recommended that he be placed in a psychiatric hospital because of the risk that he might re-offend.
But this is the purpose of prison, not of a hospital, which can never be adequately secure without infringing on the natural rights of all patients. No generally recognised diagnosis seems to have been made, nor any specific treatment recommended. No mention is made of the use of any internationally recognised methods of assessment or diagnosis.
"It is necessary that he continue being treated until he can no longer be classified as dangerous. Thus, the conditions are in place for him to be put in a psychiatric institute," she is quoted as saying, as well as quoting his claim that he was "born to rape", which begs close examination and analysis. "On the surface, everything functions smoothly. But deep down, his unfulfilled needs are simmering," sounds more like a cooking programme than a scientific assessment.
Why a hospital?
The prosecution, too, has demanded that Fritzl serve any sentence in a facility for mentally abnormal offenders. Yet all this without any proper evidence that he is mentally abnormal, or has any condition known to medical science and which might be susceptible to treatment. The closest reference to anything like a diagnosis is a reference to "serious personality problems", though he was fully responsible for his actions.
This could apply to almost every single inhabitant of every jail. We need to recognise the possibility that some people are simply evil, rather than sick; that not all ugly or disgusting behaviour is a result of recognisable or treatable illness.
To confine such a person in hospital serves no useful function. Depending on the hospital, it may provide living conditions better than those in prison, but that is hardly a justifiable consideration in a case like this. If his condition is essentially untreatable, there is no proper treatment to give him. It is unfair to the psychiatrists to send them an untreatable person to treat, to cure of a non-existent illness.
The abuse excuse
Fritzl seems to have tried hard, presumably with the assistance of suitably expert advice, to portray himself as sick and in need of medical care, though the hard evidence does not support this interpretation. He claimed, without any supporting actual evidence, that he was abused as a child. Typically, this abuse excuse is favoured by some lawyers, especially when the person the accused accuses is conveniently dead and unable to defend herself. He added terse comments such as "I know I must be crazy to do something like that", and referred to "my sick behaviour".
Then he suddenly astonished everyone by admitting to everything, even the most serious charges, even murder and slavery. Was he expecting leniency on the basis of the mental disorder he does not have? Did anyone reassure him of this?
Little about these proceedings was satisfactory. One can only hope that now, Elisabeth and her children will be able to lead a safe, anonymous, and undisturbed life, elsewhere in Austria. Though I wonder after this case, whether the arrival of a mother with six children following this case, would go unnoticed in any community.
(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, Health24, March 2009)