Trigger Warning

Via CNN, on the man who “allegedly” imprisoned his daughter in a basement dungeon for 24 years, repeatedly raping her and forcing her to bear seven of his children, and who is just now finally entering his plea in the case:

Josef Fritzl, accused of imprisoning his daughter in a cellar for decades and fathering her seven children, pleaded guilty to incest, imprisonment and one charge of assault Monday at the opening of his trial in Austria.

He denied charges of murder and enslavement. When asked to enter a plea on a charge of rape, the 73-year-old replied: “Partly guilty.”

Franz Cutka, a press spokesman for the Landesgericht St. Poelten court, said the “partly guilty” plea might mean that Fritzl contends he is not guilty of all the individual rape charges or that the violence used wasn’t as severe as rape.

Emphasis mine.

I’m not up on Austrian rape laws, so I have no idea what contending that “the violence used wasn’t as severe as rape” means in legal terms.  (The insight of anyone who does know would be greatly appreciated.)  But the idea that there might be some sort of threshold for severity of violence in order for any non-consensual sex to legally count as rape makes me physically seize up, wince and feel queasy.  And even worse, but just barely, the idea that anyone — anyone, even the perpetrator — could possibly think that such a concept applies in a case where we’re talking about rape committed through forcible imprisonment for 24 years, just.  Yes . . . it leaves me completely speechless.

Leaving me significantly less speechless is the description of the charges that CNN provides.

Murder: The infant who died in 1996 died from a lack of medical care, the state prosecutor said. The charge carries a sentence of life in prison.

Involvement in slave trade: From 1984 until 2008, prosecutors allege, Fritzl held his daughter, Elisabeth, captive in a dungeon, abused her sexually and treated her as if she were his personal property — in a situation similar to slavery. If he is convicted, the sentence could range from 10 to 20 years in prison.

Rape: Between August 30, 1984, and June 30, 1989, Fritzl “regularly sexually abused Elisabeth,” according to the prosecutor. The sentence could be from five to 15 years in prison.

Incest: Parallel to the rape charge. It carries a sentence of up to one year.

Withdrawal of liberty: Three of the children Fritzl had with Elisabeth were illegally held captive in a dungeon with no daylight or fresh air, according to prosecutors. That charge carries a sentence of one to 10 years.

Assault: Between August 28, 1984, and April 26, 2006, Fritzl repeatedly threatened Elisabeth and their three children with gas and booby traps as warnings in case they tried to escape, authorities allege. The sentence would range from six months to five years.

I look at those charges, and what I see is a serious discrepancy between the acts committed and the possible sentences being laid out.

I want to be entirely clear that if what is alleged is true (and I do not doubt it for a second), the death of the child was absolutely murder.  There’s no question about that.  Purposely failing to get medical treatment for a human being in order to hide one’s other crimes is murder.  And that, like everything else about this case, is absolutely horrific.

But.  While a charge of murder that seems to have been committed more through (again, absolutely horrific and unforgivable) negligence than through direct violence seemingly carries a mandatory life sentence, we’ve got every single act of violence, terror, torture, imprisonment and indignity committed with forethought and as a result of direct and purposeful actions that were entirely intended to do harm, adding up to a total maximum sentence of 51 years.

Am I the only one who sees a significant and fundamental problem?

I’m entirely aware that Josef Fritzl is 73-years-old, and therefore there is not much of a material difference between 51 years imprisonment and a lifetime of imprisonment.  The possibility of a 73-year-old man still being alive 51 years later is absolutely nil.  But what if he was a younger man, and somehow did not receive the maximum allowable sentences?

Further sentencing is highly symbolic in addition to being practical.  Like it or not — and there are plenty of things to dislike — it’s the system we live in.  And the sentences we ascribe to certain crimes are a clear way of displaying how we view the damage inflicted by those crimes and the value we place on that damage.  And the only reason that the possible, maximum sentence, if convicted of all of these crimes, even adds up as high as 51 years is because there are so many charges applied.

So what I see is 24-years of a woman’s life, in addition to the entire lives of three of her children up to the point of their rescue, being taken not nearly seriously enough.  Looking at the individual charges, I see 24 years of rape, even in the maximum sentence, not worth that many years in prison.  I see imprisoning a woman for 24 years and three of her children for many years, too, as also not worth nearly that much time of imprisonment for the perpetrator.  I see a woman’s entire violence-filled life — because  you know that this horror is not “over” for her in any material mental sense — as well as those lives of her children, utterly devalued as not really that bad.

Call me punitive for not thinking that 51 years, symbolically or actually, is nearly enough to adequately represent what was committed.  But I do not.

I see one of the most horrific crimes perpetrated against a woman that I have ever heard of in my entire life being shrugged of way too easily.  Maybe because of issues with the statues that are far out of prosecutors hands, but still shrugged off.

And then we wonder how a crime like this might happen.

UPDATE: A Guardian article has details on the opening arguments from the trial:

The defence lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, appealed to the jury to be objective and not swayed by emotions. He insisted Fritzl was “not a monster”.

Addressing the jury, Mayer said: “You need to keep emotions out of this. Even with someone like him who has been described as a monster, it’s irrelevant if he is an unsympathetic character or a monster.”

Mayer described how Fritzl had managed to care for “two families” – “you cannot call someone who does that a monster”.

He added: “If you only want your daughter for sex you don’t want children. You would let them starve.”

I think I’m going to be sick.

0 thoughts on “Speechless

  1. SunlessNick

    I see one of the most horrific crimes perpetrated against a woman that I have ever heard of in my entire life being shrugged of way too easily.

    I think the worst crime by a single perpetrator that I’ve ever heard of. For the rest of his life is the only acceptable sentence.

    Even more downbeat, another article (trigger warning) I saw implies the sentences may be concurrent – the actual words are “The conviction with the highest penalty will determine the length of the sentence” – and thus briefer still.

  2. Mortality

    There was a case in Sweden some time ago where a man had held his girlfriend captive in their house for like nine years or something, and he got less than fours years in prison.

  3. Daisy

    I don’t know if it’s the same all over Europe, but I know in my country, the Netherlands, I’m continuously appalled by the low penalties for severe crimes like sexual assault and rape.

    It disgusts me and there are some people that want to change this, I hope sooner rather than later. Right now you can get a much higher sentence if you’re committing a financial crime than a rapist.

    Sorry if my english is not so great, this whole case has me very emotional and the low penalties are something that I see so often and it makes me sick to my stomach.

  4. Feminist Avatar

    He’ll be very unlikely to get 51 years, unless the judge is making a point, as European courts tend to run sentences concurrently. He’s more likely to get 20 years, and you only do half your time, unless they successfully argue there is a risk of you repeating your crime, and so he’ll do ten. And this is mainly because the European court system doesn’t like to think of its punishments as punitive, but rehabilitative and for social protection.

    I think one of the problems with this case is that it is extremely unusual for such extreme abuse to be so prolonged and the statutes aren’t really set up to deal with it.

    And life imprisonment means 20-25 years in Austria, not actual life imprisonment.

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  6. JM

    Well, if Austria is like other countries in the EU, 51 years would be an extremely long sentence, in terms of norms of sentencing.

    In the UK, my understanding is that a life sentence usually means about 25 years maximum, although in some cases there’s the ability to make it mean ‘actual’ life in prison…

    I think there are just different norms of sentencing in general, and the idea of giving a symbolic sentences of hundreds of years just isn’t something that happens in European criminal justice systems, as far as I’m aware…

    … I don;t mean to say you shouldn’t be sickened by this, or by low sentencing in general. Or to imply it’s not a problem – although I’m much more furious at the many, many rape cases where the sentance given is insultingly low, than about this case where he’ll definitely die in prison (assuming justice is done).

    It’s just that I think US people come at it from a different perspective because your criminal justice system is very different.

  7. heartjam

    This entire situatuon leaves me feeling sick to the bottom of my stomach.

    Lock him away and throw away the key, or else no justice has been done. This monster cannot be allowed to see the light of day again. Hand him a 51 year sentence if that’s what it takes, I’m not satisfied 25 years is enough.

  8. SunlessNick

    In the UK, my understanding is that a life sentence usually means about 25 years maximum, although in some cases there’s the ability to make it mean ‘actual’ life in prison

    The judge has the option to recommend a minimum span, which is generally taken seriously by our equivalent of the parole board; in rare cases, this recommendation is that the perpetrator never be released (such was the case with Steven Wright, who murdered the prostitutes in Egypt a couple of years ago).

  9. Jha

    This makes me cry.

    I am now conflicted, because it’s for stuff like this that I believe in the death penalty, and yet the death penalty is problematic. Is it very problematic when it constitutes the removal of such individuals, whose crime cannot be disproved (except by a very long stretch of irrational, nonsensical, non-reality-aligned imagination)? Or is death too harsh a punishment for 24 years of imprisonment, rape, forced childbearing, and torture? I don’t know anymore.

  10. Renee

    He stole her life and deserves to spend the rest of his in prison with as few privileges as possible. There is no redeeming a man like that.

  11. Thealogian

    Bernie Madoff is expected to get 121 years for his $50 Billion Ponzi scheme–and yes there a many people who have lost everything and will live on Social Security for the rest of their lives when they may have had a say $2 million in investments with Madoff (not to mention, Elie Weisel’s charity that lost its shirt and the other affluent clients who are simply less affluent by now), but the 121 year possible (expected) sentence is based in a system that does believe in the punitive–not necessarily the rehabilitative. Of course, crucial to remember, Madoff’s crimes were not violent in nature, though they have had real world effects on the lives and livelihoods of the people involved.

    Fritzl’s crimes WERE GROUNDED IN VIOLENCE AND DOMINATION and they denied life and liberty to many people, primarily his daughter Elizabeth and her children/siblings from incest as well. This life-stealing kind of crime is nearly unimaginable–I have serious problems trying to get my head around 24 years of torture, abuse, subjugation, rape, dangerous pregnancies, unassisted births, lack of light and constant fear. The only thing I can relate this to are slave narratives from the 18th and 19th Centuries.

    Getting back to the possible sentencing, having worked with students in the juvenile justice system in the US (and seeing how the punitive verses rehabilitative philosophies work–I should explain, we had a Republican Governor who was very much into the punitive system, then last year we got a Democratic governor and our programs have shifted in philosophy so much, honestly, it really amazes me how leadership does so fundamentally impact the day to day, let alone grand policy. Suffice it to say, the rehabilitative, especially with children who generally come from abusive households and poverty CAN WORK. Now, I have to be honest about one thing and that is, it works with best with non-violent crimes (like stealing a car). Car theft is really a form of extreme acting out, whereas murder/rape come from a deeper pathology that requires years and years of work. Anyway, enough of that. My point is, like many European systems, I think that rehabilitative systems are better in philosophy to dealing with crime in general, but when dealing with someone like Fritzl, rehabilitation is 100% bullshit. He is a sociopathic, violent, soul-crushing monster and he should never ever walk free again. So, how does one balance that? I think that there HAS TO BE both a way to seek rehabilitation of those who can be and a way to deal with the hopelessly broken (and how to keep those broken individuals from hurting people ever again–even if “hurting people” is defined by their freedom causing anxiety in their victims because they have to constantly monitor whether they will be attacked or taunted).

    I mean, Fritzl has committed extraordinary crimes against humanity, if nothing else. Like genocide and slavery, keeping captive seven people over 24 years MUST merit an extreme dimension of cruelty that could be legally articulated, even if it isn’t articulated in the law codes now??? I hope that this case will serve the Austrian justice system a wake-up call that will allow for that mixed methods of justice in which one’s ideals of rehabilitation does not cloud over the kind of biological impossibility of wholeness possible for true war criminals, domestic terrorists (not talking about W’s domestic terrorists, I mean the dudes who make every day in their homes an experience of terror for their families), and for slavers/serial rapists. Sociopathic people are not fully capable of interacting in a meaningful or mutual manner with other individuals or society as a whole and if they become violent criminals, it serves their own interests as well as their victims to keep them from committing additional crimes.


    1. Cara Post author

      I think that there HAS TO BE both a way to seek rehabilitation of those who can be and a way to deal with the hopelessly broken

      Yes, this. Exactly this.

  12. Feminist Avatar

    It occurs to me today that Fritzl’s act is seen as extreme as his daughter was kept below ground, but how many wives and children live for years with abusive men, scared to leave the house, stopped from having relationships with friends and families. Recently in Scotland, a man has been jailed for raping and impregnating his two daughters (several times) over about 20 years. He kept moving them around so they couldn’t establish relationships with others. He threatened to kill their children if they told and told them that their children would be taken from them due to the incest. They weren’t locked in a basement, but it does have remarkable parallels. Perhaps, the statutes don’t have ways of dealing with this, because it might resemble ‘normal’ family life for some people too closely.

  13. Ashley

    I don’t believe in retributive justice–I mean, what, exactly, could ever be “enough” punishment for killing someone’s child? And what happens to us as people when we try to hit that mark?

    I also don’t believe that there’s really such a thing as “justice” in some situations. Some things are just broken when they’re broken. The best we can hope for is healing and reconciliation.

    I think the main thing is just to respond to a situation the best we can as it exists now, instead of trying to make things that will never be right “right.” First and foremost, we have to make sure certain crimes don’t happen ever again. This is a case like that. Someone who does something so damaging is just too much of a danger to others to ever be out of prison, because if there’s even a 1% chance they’ll do it again, that’s too high. It’s not a matter of revenge or even justice–just common sense.
    (Personally, I think that most sexual violence falls into the category of a crime where a 1% reoffense rate is an unacceptable risk, and life in prison is appropriate.)

    Then we can look at what the wronged party thinks will help with their healing, and do our best to facilitate that.

    It seems to me that our culture is incredibly invested in punishment, and that it drastically underestimates the trauma of sexual violence… Which leads to inadequate and punitive measures when sexual violence happens.

  14. Michael

    Well I havn’t posted since the last time you asked about rape laws. I have to start posting on happier topics…

    So here’s what I’ve found:

    Rape is defined as :
    Whoever coerces a person by serious force directed against this person or by the threat of immediate danger for life and limb to perform or to endure sexual intercourse or a sexual act equated to sexual intercourse shall be punished by imprisonment from one to ten years. Anaesthesia has to be regarded as serious force.

    If I find anything else I’ll post again…

  15. Anna

    I don’t understand. Why can’t they get as many separate incidents of rape out of Elisabeth as she remembers – with the children, that’s at least seven anyway – and make those charges run consecutively? Surely that means that if you’ve raped someone once, it’s okay to do it again as you won’t be penalised? That scares me.

  16. AshKW

    What Anna said. It’s too horrific for my poor, overworked little brain, but is this seriously saying that is okay to rape someone a second time because by then you must have established some form of consent? That a rape victim can only be a rape victim once? Good god.

    1. Cara Post author

      Well AshKW, from the link that Mike left, the definition of rape they’re working off of is already incredibly narrow and really scary.

  17. SunlessNick

    Why can’t they get as many separate incidents of rape out of Elisabeth as she remembers

    I agree. And even without that, the charge that follows rape – sexual coercion – should be laid on him too. I don’t doubt for a second that the “dangerous threat” (to quote the definition) of Fritzl turning on Elizabeth’s children was used as coercion against her.

    Speaking of the children, there should be a raft of child endangerment charges they could add.

  18. Manon

    Mayer described how Fritzl had managed to care for “two families” – “you cannot call someone who does that a monster”.

    Watch me, Rudy. WATCH ME.


  19. Feminist Avatar

    But remember in Europe, we run sentences concurrently not consecutively, so it doesn’t matter whether you are charged with one rape or ten, you still do the same jail time.

  20. mzbitca

    Just an update. He had pleaded guilty to all charges. He reports that hearing his daughter’s testimony made him do it.
    Interesting that he never felt any guilt while he was committing this acts

  21. Anna

    I don’t think he feels guilt now. In fact, I’m pretty certain of it.
    There was something on the news that struck a bit of a chord with me; the guy on the news going on about Fritzl’s need for control and how by pleading guilty to all charges today he finally relinquished that control.
    Except, he didn’t. By pleading guilty at this point – once Elisabeth has already had to do all the legal shit, and sign statements, and repeat what happened time and time again, and finally testify in court – he’s not given up even a modicum of control. He knew he was going to get sent down, for a very long time; and by doing this he has only lessened his jail sentence and turned all focus back onto him and his possible motives for doing so.

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  23. SunlessNick

    By pleading guilty at this point – once Elisabeth has already had to do all the legal shit, and sign statements, and repeat what happened time and time again, and finally testify in court – he’s not given up even a modicum of control.

    Taking advantage of the last chance he would ever have to hurt her.

    He’s been sentenced to life in a psychiatric facility. Hopefully that means he’ll never get out.

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