May 8, 2008

Forensic psychology angles in the Josef Fritzl case

The whole world seems glued this week to the bizarre case of Josef Fritzl. As you know, Fritzl is the Austrian man who kept his daughter and three of their children together locked in an elaborate basement dungeon for 24 years. As the dust settles, I'm trying to set aside my moral and emotional reactions to parse out the intriguing forensic psychology angles. Among them:

Insanity defense

At the top of the list is the defense's announcement that it will pursue an insanity defense.

"I believe that the trigger was a mental disorder, because I can't imagine that someone has sex with his own daughter without having a mental disorder," said his lawyer, prominent Viennese attorney Rudolf Mayer.

If the attorney is thinking about the archaic concept of moral insanity, he has a point. From a lay perspective, Fritzl has got to be deranged. How else could he engage in such an elaborate, long-running scheme against his own flesh and blood? Indeed, "mentally deranged" was how he was described by a barman at a brothel he frequented, based on his sadistic and deviant sexual behavior with the prostitutes there. (Prostitution is legal in Austria.)

Pundits don't seem to know much about Austria's legal standard of insanity, and I couldn't find it online. But in most countries, including in Western Europe, the insanity defense is rarely invoked and is even more rarely successful.

As one criminal defense lawyer recently put it, "You can be extremely crazy without being legally insane. You can hear voices, you can operate under intermittent delusions, you can see rabbits in the road that aren't there and still be legally sane."

I could be wrong, but it's hard for me to see how a retired engineer and real estate developer who could maintain such an elaborate subterfuge for a quarter of a century would meet the legal standard of insanity in terms of not knowing the difference between right and wrong.

However, even were Fritzl to pursue the defense, it would not mean that he would "get off," a common misperception regarding the insanity plea. Rather, he would likely be locked in a psychiatric hospital for the remainder of his natural life.

You can listen to a half-hour conversation among experts on NPR's Talk of the Nation. Featured are law professors Christopher Slobogin and Alan Dershowitz and Slate magazine legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick. (Click on the NPR logo to the right.)

It will be interesting as case facts emerge to learn what complex algorithm may have produced Fritzl's twisted psyche. According to a sister-in-law, he grew up without a father, and his mother beat him on a near-daily basis. Certainly, that is one type of home environment that can produce a sexual sadist.

Competency to stand trial

Much public confusion exists about the distinction between legal insanity and incompetence to stand trial, and this confusion may be occurring in the Fritzl case as well.

Fritzl's attorney is quoted as saying that his client is "mentally incompetent" and that he will challenge any other decision reached by the psychiatrist who has been appointed by the court. Austrian law allows him to obtain an expert opinion from a psychiatrist of his choice.

While the legal construct of insanity pertains to an accused person's past state of mind, including whether he knew the difference between right and wrong at the time of his crime, competency pertains to the accused's present ability to understand the legal proceedings and assist one's attorney at trial.

As such, incompetency is not a permanent barrier to prosecution. If a person is found incompetent to stand trial, he is treated until he becomes competent, at which time he stands trial. (In the NPR program I link to, above, Dershowitz claims competency is often a permanent barrier to prosecution, but I believe he is wrong about that except in unusual cases in which a defendant cannot be restored to competency due to such things as severe retardation or dementia.)

Sex offending

Austria, like the rest of Western Europe, has not jumped on the imprisonment bandwagon in recent years. Its incarceration rate is 108 per 100,000, more than seven times lower than the United States'. Criminal code reforms in 1974 emphasized the importance of diversion as an alternative to incarceration. And Austrians are so opposed to capital punishment that they stripped California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's name from a soccer stadium in his hometown because he refused to pardon a condemned man.

But as we here in the United States certainly know, extreme cases fuel extreme laws, and the heinousness of Fritzl's deeds may fuel a drive for harsher punishment in Austria, especially of sex offenders.

Indeed, Austria's justice minister is already vowing to spearhead a sweeping review of all sentencing laws and to propose legislation doubling prison sentences for "especially dangerous" predators.

Fueling outrage around the world is the fact that Fritzl had a prior sex offense conviction. Way back in 1967, when he was in his early 30s, he served time for rape. He also had a second conviction for attempted rape and an arrest for indecent exposure, according to reports.

Prosecutors are still deciding how to charge Fritzl so that he faces the maximum possible punishment. The maximum sentence for rape is 15 years, and unlike in the United States time is not added consecutively for multiple charges. He could get a few additional years if convicted of "murder through failure to act" for the death of an infant whom he admits incinerating. But since he is 73 years old, the difference in his sentence is probably moot except on a symbolic level.

Trauma psychology

Perhaps most interesting, and most unsettling, is the psychological effects of their ordeal on Fritzl's victims. These include Elizabeth, the daughter imprisoned for a quarter of a century, the children, and even Fritzl's wife Rosemarie, who claims to have had no inkling of her husband's deeds.

Elisabeth was initially kept tethered on a cable that allowed only limited movement. For about nine years, she and her older two children, 19-year-old Kerstin and 18-year-old Stefan, were kept in a tiny room together, meaning the children would have witnessed their grandfather’s sexual abuse of their mother.

Nineteen-year-old Kerstin remains quite physically ill, so we do not know much about her mental state. Stefan, however, shows signs of severely impoverished physical and psychological development, including trouble talking and moving around in the open after spending his entire life in a small, windowless basement. Younger son Felix, 5, probably has the best chance of recovery. The children reportedly communicate through a combination of speech and animal sounds, including growling and cooing, and become exhausted with the effort of trying to make themselves intelligible to outsiders.

As child psychologist Bruce Perry explains in his new book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, trauma and neglect at any age can cause gaps in neurological development that are difficult to reverse. Dr. Perry’s treatment is "neurosequential," meaning he sequentially targets brain regions left undeveloped by trauma. When children's brains are affected in infancy, for example, therapy may start with healing touch or rhythm before moving on to higher brain functions.

Elizabeth's psychological state is difficult to even fathom. Her father reportedly began raping her when she was 11 and continued to do so for a number of years. She bore seven of his children, one of whom died and three of whom were taken away from her to live upstairs. Imprisoned in the tiny cellar from the age of 18, she reportedly looks far older than 42.

"Why didn’t she try to escape?" some people have asked. We, of course, don't know that she did not try. But if she didn't, based on the limited available facts it seems reasonable to guess that it was due to a combination of fear, learned helplessness, and Fritzl’s diabolical control and terrorization. The initial door to the prison cell was a half-ton of reinforced concrete on steel rails. Fritzl apparently convinced Elisabeth and the children that the concrete door was wired to explode, and that poisonous gas canisters would explode if they tried to escape.

One can only hope that with high-quality treatment and support the family will have some chance of recovery. And that can only begin to happen after the legal case is resolved.

The Scotsman of May 9 has details of Fritzl's in-depth interview on his motives. Wikipedia has additional information and links to background sources.

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