updated 8/7/2008 3:27:50 PM ET 2008-08-07T19:27:50

Two former nurses' aides sentenced to life in prison for killing at least 20 elderly patients have been released early, a prison official said Thursday.

The two women — Waltraud Wagner and Irene Leidolf — were freed early Thursday because of good behavior while behind bars for more than 19 years, said Gottfried Neuberger, head of the prison in Schwarzau, in Lower Austria.

Neuberger, in a telephone interview with The Associated Press, said the women already have had substantial contact with the outside world over the past few years and are prepared to resume normal life.

"They worked hard at themselves, they couldn't be more regretful," Neuberger said.

The women, who have or are in the process of getting new identities, must continue psychotherapy, keep in touch with probation officers and inform authorities when they move, Neuberger said.

Wagner, Leidolf and two accomplices were convicted of what they characterized as mercy killings of old and chronically ill patients at Vienna's Lainz Hospital between 1983 and 1989.

Prosecutors countered that the slayings were cold-blooded murder and said some victims suffered terribly. The presiding judge denounced the women's "malicious methods" — administering intravenous injections of large doses of insulin and tranquilizers, or pouring water down elderly patients' windpipes.

Two other women, Maria Gruber and Stefanija Mayer, were convicted as accessories on lesser charges of attempted murder and manslaughter. Both were released a few years ago and were issued new identities as a precaution against vigilantes.

Although both Wagner and Leidolf, born in 1958 and 1961, were convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, in Austria that maximum penalty typically means 15 years of incarceration. Like other European nations, Austria does not have the death penalty.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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