ST. POELTEN, Austria â Josef Fritzl abruptly pleaded guilty to all of the charges against him Wednesday â a surprising twist amid disclosures that the daughter he imprisoned for 24 years in a dungeon where she bore him seven children secretly sat in on the trial.
Adding intrigue to a case that has drawn worldwide attention, Fritzl calmly acknowledged his guilt, including to homicide, and said his change of heart came after hearing his daughter’s heart-wrenching videotaped testimony.
“I declare myself guilty to the charges in the indictment,” Fritzl, 73, told a panel of judges, referring to what he called “my sick behavior.”
Fritzl was charged with negligent homicide in the death of an infant boy as well as enslavement, rape, incest, forced imprisonment and coercion. Initially he pleaded guilty to incest and forced imprisonment, and partially guilty to rape and coercion. The change means he could face up to life in prison for the homicide charge.
Legal experts say the eight-member jury will still have to deliver verdicts despite Fritzl’s guilty pleas, although his confessions could be grounds for a lesser sentence. Verdicts and sentences were expected Thursday after closing statements.
Fritzl’s daughter Elisabeth was the prosecution’s key witness. Now 42, she was 18 when he imprisoned her in the squalid, windowless cell he built beneath the family’s home in the town of Amstetten, where he raped her for years, sometimes in front of the children.
Asked by the judge what led him to change his mind, Fritzl said it was Elisabeth’s testimony. Fritzl, jurors and others in court viewed 11 hours of her videotaped statement during closed-door sessions Monday and Tuesday, but officials were not allowed to provide details.
Fritzl’s lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, said his client asked to see a psychiatrist after Tuesday’s court hearing.
“It must really have shaken him up,” he said of Elisabeth’s testimony.
However, a person familiar with the trial told The Associated Press that Elisabeth herself was in court on both days, when the public and media were excluded â suggesting her presence might have unnerved Fritzl and prompted him to change his pleas. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because discussion of the closed proceedings was not authorized.
Before the trial, prosecutors had said Elisabeth would not be present. Court spokesman Franz Cutka said Elisabeth was not in court Wednesday and declined to comment further.
The homicide charge came for the death of a 2-day-old twin boy â Michael â 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.
Elisabeth and her six surviving children, who range in age from 6 to 20, have spent months recovering in a psychiatric clinic and at a secret location. Prosecutors have described her as a “broken” woman.
Psychiatrist Adelheid Kastner told the court Wednesday that Fritzl has a serious personality disorder and would pose a threat to others if freed. She recommended that Fritzl serve his sentence in a special prison for psychologically deranged criminals or a ward for abnormal criminals in a regular jail.
Kastner told Austrian television Wednesday evening that she believes Fritzl is a suicide risk and should be monitored.
“For sure, he has reached the moment when the whole house of cards has collapsed,” she said.
Fritzl expressed regret that he didn’t bring the ailing infant out of the cellar and get medical help.
“I don’t know why I didn’t help,” he said. “I just overlooked it. I thought the little one would survive.”
“I should have recognized that the baby was doing poorly,” he added.
Fritzl’s lawyer had previously claimed his client only saw the newborn once he was already dead; Fritzl told investigators he burned the body in a furnace.
Erich Huber-Guensthofer, deputy head of the St. Poelten prison, said Fritzl had an “extensive conversation” with a psychiatrist after Wednesday’s hearing.
Police say DNA tests prove Fritzl is the biological father of all six surviving children, three of whom never saw daylight until the crime was exposed 11 months ago.
The other three children were brought upstairs to be raised by Fritzl and his wife, Rosemarie, who was led to believe they were abandoned by Elisabeth when she ran off to join a cult.
Prosecutors told the court Fritzl refused to speak to his daughter during the first years of her ordeal, coming downstairs only to rape her.
Kastner, the psychiatrist who met with Fritzl several times and wrote 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, adding he also believed “he was born to rape.”
The AP normally withholds the names of victims of sexual assault. In this case, withholding Elisabeth’s name 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.
Associated Press Writer Veronika Oleksyn reported from St. Poelten and William J. Kole contributed from Vienna.