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Austria incest case revives prison term debate

Austria Captive Daughter
Members of a forensic team in front of the house of Josef Fritzl in Amstetten on Wednesday. Authorities say the woman whose sickness triggered discovery of an Austrian family terrorized by decades of incest and imprisonment is struggling to survive, as they weigh the future of her five siblings.Hans Punz / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Police say Josef Fritzl left a lot of human wreckage in his wake: the daughter he imprisoned and raped for 24 years, the seven children he fathered with her and the wife whose life he shattered.

Yet, for an atrocity that has stunned the world, he may wind up serving just 15 years in prison if charged, tried and convicted.

Practically speaking, that may translate into a life sentence for Fritzl, 73. But his case has revived a debate over Europe's lenient penal system — and whether harsher, U.S.-style sentencing guidelines might help deter such heinous crimes.

"Fifteen years for destroying human lives is unacceptable," said Harald Vilimsky, a public safety policy official with Austria's conservative Freedom Party. "Any punishment that falls a single day short of a life sentence is a mockery of the victims."

Many Europeans abhor the death penalty, and capital punishment is illegal across the 27-nation EU. But in many countries, even convicted murderers handed life sentences seldom serve more than 25 years.

Sweden has life imprisonment for murder, but the sentencing guidelines go as low as 10 years. That applies — in theory at least — even to serial killers.

In Germany, convicted rapists are punished with sentences of six months to five years. Serial cases, and those involving weapons or death threats, can fetch up to 10 years in prison — but also as little as 12 months.

Poland's maximum for rape is 15 years, and that would apply even for sexual assaults repeatedly carried out over two dozen years as alleged in the Austrian case. The standard time served? Two to 12 years.

"It's rare that anyone serves the full sentence in Europe," said James Whitman, a professor of comparative and foreign law at Yale. "It's expected that people are let out early."

In the U.S., by contrast, first-degree rape is punishable by up to life imprisonment in states ranging from Maryland to South Dakota.

More in American lock-ups
Experts say Europe's shorter sentences — and its reluctance to jail people for offenses considered minor, such as possessing small amounts of marijuana — help explain why its prisons are far less crowded than U.S. lockups.

The U.S. has the most prisoners per capita in the world, with 751 for every 100,000 people, according to the London-based International Center for Prison Studies. Most European nations trail far behind: Britain's rate is 151 per 100,000, Austria's is 108 and Denmark's is 66.

Fritzl surely would face a tougher prison term anywhere in America, and in some states maybe even the death penalty, said Dan Richman, a law professor at Columbia University.

"I think it's fair to say that in any jurisdiction in the U.S. his maximum sentence would be much more severe," he said.

In Italy, murder carries a minimum sentence of 21 years and a maximum of life. But life terms are rarely handed down in a system that emphasizes rehabilitation over incarceration, said Carlo Guarnieri, a justice expert at the University of Bologna Law School.

"The Italian system is very European and not American at all," Guarnieri said. "In general terms, penalties are lenient. The general outlook of the court is in favor of rehabilitation, although today there is a lot of discussion that this doesn't work."

Prosecutors try to build case
In Austria, prosecutors are still mulling how to charge Fritzl, who police say confessed to imprisoning his daughter Elisabeth — now 42 — in a warren of windowless, soundproofed rooms beneath his home when she was 18 and raping her repeatedly.

They say Fritzl also admitted to incinerating the body of one of the seven children he fathered after the child died in infancy.

Authorities say Fritzl could face up to 15 years if convicted of rape. Prosecutors are looking into whether the retired electrician could be tried for "murder through failure to act" in the infant's death.

Austria's criminal code prescribes prison terms ranging from 10 to 20 years to life for murder — but in Austrian terms, a life sentence is interpreted as 20 to 25 years of confinement.

Courts also don't tack on extra time for related offenses, unlike in the U.S., where weapons charges or crossing state lines can add significantly to the time ultimately spent behind bars.

Fritzl has not yet been charged, but the most likely charges he faces are rape, incest and false imprisonment. If convicted of all three, he would serve the sentences concurrently and the maximum would be 15 years based on the rapes.

Potentially, it could be far less if he mounts a successful insanity defense. Either way, a trial could be a long way off: Police say their investigation may drag on for another six months.

Austria's justice minister, Maria Berger, said Wednesday the government will conduct a sweeping review of all sentencing laws and propose legislation doubling prison sentences for "especially dangerous" predators.

But Berger insists a more draconian approach probably wouldn't stop the next Fritzl.

"To this kind of perpetrator," she said, "the severity of the punishment means nothing."

Europeans frequently criticize the U.S. system, where first-degree murder and other heinous crimes are punishable by life without possibility of parole, or, in some states, death.

Many criticized this month's landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld Kentucky's three-drug lethal injection method and prompted other states to take steps to resume executions, a practice considered barbaric in Europe.

In 2005, death penalty opponents succeeded in getting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's name stripped from a soccer stadium in his Austrian hometown because he refused to pardon a convict on California's death row.

But Europeans have also been rattled by some singularly horrific cases that have challenged their approach to crime and punishment:

  • In Spain, groups representing victims of the 2004 Madrid commuter train terrorist bombings that killed 191 people and injured more than 1,800 expressed outrage over last year's acquittal of the alleged ringleader, Rabei Osman. Although the three main figures were sentenced to tens of thousands of years in prison, four other top suspects got off with sentences of 10 to 18 years. Prosecutors are appealing Osman's acquittal.
  • Belgium's notorious serial pedophile, Marc Dutroux, was on parole for raping schoolgirls when he committed a spree of child kidnappings, rapes and murders that eventually led to a life sentence in 2004. In theory, Dutroux eventually could come up for parole, though that's unlikely because a judge has pronounced him a danger to society and Belgium has toughened its parole rules.
  • Britons still debate the handling of the infamous 1993 murder of 2-year-old James Bulger by two 10-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. They were tried as adults and jailed for the slaying, but released eight years later with new identities. Britain's maximum penalty for adults convicted of murder, rape or kidnapping is life imprisonment, but judges have broad discretion to decide whether to grant parole.

Guarnieri, the Italian justice system expert, said his country's approach reflects its Roman Catholic culture.

"There is an attitude to forgive," he said.

"If you read the newspapers or watch TV, every time there is a crime, the journalist tries to interview the victim and ask if they are forgiving. Always."