The Viennese criminal lawyer Astrid Wagner is polarizing. Among other things, she defended Josef Fritzl, who held his daughter captive in the basement for years and abused her – and was in love with the woman murderer Jack Unterweger. A conversation about evil in people, prejudice and repression.

FOCUS online: Ms. Wagner, you are a lawyer. In the anteroom of your law firm in Vienna, her “favorites” hang on the wall as large-format pictures, writes the “NZZ” in a report. The “favorites” are murderers and other serious criminals. Who’s hanging there?

Astrid Wagner: I have to tell you the back story. A good friend of mine is a painter. He had the idea of ​​portraying famous criminals. Including some of my clients. For example, the “Ice Lady”, a young double murderer. Or Alfred U., the sea killer. He strangled and dismembered a prostitute and cooked goulash from her remains. The two, but also many others, can be seen as pictures on the walls of my office.

Why do you design the entrance area of ​​your law firm this way? It seems like you are celebrating evil.

Wagner: It’s the meeting room, not the entrance area. But it fits. My premises are not a kindergarten, but a criminal office. I take on the toughest cases, that’s what I’m known for. I don’t shy away from anyone, not even serial killers.

You don’t find any harmless cases?

Wagner: Yes, of course. I just spoke on the phone to a man who is said to have made a death threat. He cried, was completely desperate. I tried to calm him down. That’s more like everyday life as a lawyer. I have three or four murder trials a year.

That’s still quite a lot.

Wagner: Unfortunately, a lot happens. I’m currently dealing with a particularly tragic case. It’s about a baby that a man is said to have shaken to death. The man can’t believe it and says he’s innocent. I’m now taking care of an expert opinion.

So a child died.

Wagner: Yes, and this is not the only such case. I recently spoke to a mother who drowned her daughters in a frenzy. Six years and nine months old. She thought they both had a terrible life ahead of them and wanted to save them. That was in midsummer 2023. Now she is on medication and the madness is gone. The woman sees what she has done. And can’t believe it.

You sound so matter-of-fact. Do stories like this not affect you at all?

Wagner: No. It’s like coroners. They also cut into dead people. If they let everything get to them, the horror of the injuries and the deaths they have to investigate, then they would hardly be able to do their job.

Yes, perhaps.

Wagner: In my job I know: I have nothing to do with the crimes. I have not committed any crime. My job is to defend the perpetrator, not the crime. I have to explain why he or she committed a crime. Show the motif.

Why are crimes committed?

Wagner: I have learned in the many years that I have been a lawyer that no one is born evil. There is always a reason for acts such as murder, manslaughter, serious bodily harm and so on. Examples are: psychological injuries, a difficult environment, a hard childhood.

I remember a documentary about a serial killer who, at the age of six, had to watch his dad beat a puppy to death. I think to myself: The empathy center was destroyed. That has consequences. This can cause people to do evil things.

Nevertheless, many serious crimes cannot be excused.

Wagner: That’s true. Sometimes there is no excuse. But an explanation. It is convenient to say that someone is evil and killed a loved one because of it. But most of the time it is more complicated. That doesn’t mean the act is okay.

What does it mean then?

Wagner: That society has a responsibility. That a better environment ensures fewer crimes. But that’s common knowledge, so I’m not really saying anything new.

We talk a lot about the perpetrators. What about the victims and survivors?

Wagner: Anyone who has committed a crime must be punished. That’s for sure. Punishments are important for society – as a preventive measure and as atonement. But I believe that victims and survivors can deal with a crime better if they recognize that the perpetrator also has his story.

You mean find some sort of closure?

Wagner: Exactly. I once represented a man who was pushed in front of a subway train. He lost a foot in the incident. The man could have shouted at the perpetrator, he could have become angry, completely beside himself. But none of that happened. On the contrary. In court, he hugged the man who pushed him in front of the train and said: “I want to forgive you.” I believe you have to make peace with what happened in order to be able to move on.

Why do you choose such tough cases? You could stick with the harmless ones. For men who are reported for making death threats and not for murder.

Wagner: I have a clear conscience. I do what suits my nature. I am empathetic and can therefore even understand people who have killed others. Of course I wouldn’t act like them myself. Life is something sacred for me. For example, I also find it reprehensible to kill a cat or dog. The penalties are lower.

You defended Josef Fritzl, who locked his daughter in the basement and abused her for 24 years. Or as some media call him: the “Monster of Amstetten”.

Wagner: I don’t think it’s right to call him a monster. Of course he did something terrible. But that doesn’t explain why he is reduced to a monster as a human being. I believe that the number of unreported cases of Josef Fritzl in the general population is very high. You hate what’s inside you. Your own dark desires are projected – onto people like Josef Fritzl.

Astrid Wagner is an Austrian lawyer and author. She represented, among others, Josef Fritzl, who held his own daughter prisoner in an underground apartment for 24 years and fathered several children with her. She was also in the headlines for her relationship with Jack Unterweger, a convicted murderer of women. Wagner has written several books, including about Josef Fritzl (“The Abyss of Josef F.”) and Jack Unterweger (“Love, Murder

How did you even get involved in the case?

Wagner: Mr. Fritzl wrote me a letter. I surprised myself. It was such a scribble. Only after thinking about it for a moment did I realize who actually contacted me. I immediately decided to accept the mandate.

It sounds like you hardly have any exclusion criteria when it comes to your clients.

Wagner: There are also few. I usually only turn down cases if the chemistry isn’t right. I always used to say: I don’t want to represent animal abusers. But even then things turned out differently. A woman has been accused of tying up a dog and leaving it to die alive in a well. She said it wasn’t her. I also accepted this mandate.

Most people only know Josef Fritzl from the media. What is he like in person?

Wagner: Josef Fritzl is an incredibly complex person. Multi-layered. On the outside he seems very charming and polite. That’s probably why he was able to keep what he did to his daughter a secret for so long. He dresses elegantly, even in prison. He was popular, which doesn’t surprise me. Mr. Fritzl seems like a friendly, older gentleman. Like someone you would like to have as a neighbor.

Did you ever have a bad feeling about representing Josef Fritzl?

Wagner: No, not at all. Mr. Fritzl is not bitter. He still has a wit, a fine sense of humor. Many become malignant as they age. Not Mr. Fritzl. He now suffers from dementia. The psychiatric expert says he is no longer dangerous.

It all sounds so harmless. Josef Fritzl did something malicious.

Wagner: That’s right. But I think he suppresses it. Mr. Fritzl is doing psychotherapy, which is very important to him. He keeps saying that he regrets his actions. But he is also an egoist. An egoist with a strong will to live.

You said in an interview that you can learn something from every criminal, no matter how bad they are. That must also apply to Josef Fritzl.

Wagner: Right. What fascinates me about Mr. Fritzl is his will to survive. Anyone who receives a life sentence at the age of 70 and thinks they will live well into their 100s must be incredibly optimistic.

The abysses of Josef F.

Have you ever been afraid of one of your clients?

Wagner: No, not really. Of course there were worrying situations. For example, I once represented a man who killed his wife. He was convicted of murder and blamed me for it. I knew he was dangerous. But I also knew that in many cases prison has a healing effect. Those who are released usually don’t want to go back.

Do you think you can divide people into “good” and “bad”?

Wagner: No. There are gray areas. In addition, many criminals are mentally ill. When someone like that commits a crime, it’s bad. But the act has a different dimension, a different background than, for example, starting wars out of a lust for power.

You came particularly close to a criminal in the past. They fell in love with Jack Unterweger, a convicted woman murderer. How did that happen?

Wagner: Jack was in prison for 16 years because he killed Margret Schäfer, a young woman, with a steel rod. While in prison he wrote novels and poems that made him famous. He had only been out again for a short time when several prostitutes were murdered. Jack came under suspicion and was sent to prison again. I had read his books and wrote him a letter. At some point I started visiting him. I immediately found him interesting.

What did you talk about with Jack during your many visits – there were more than 200?

Wagner: About God and the world. Also about having children and getting married.

Have you imagined your future together?

Wagner: At least sometimes. Of course, I knew that this might not end well. That Jack might be convicted of multiple murders. Things looked good for a while. But then came the DNA report that changed everything. A hair was found on the car seat of his BMW, which most likely came from one of the victims. Jack was sentenced to life in prison for nine counts of murder.

To this day you doubt his guilt.

Wagner: I talked to Jack a lot about the serial murders. He denied everything. Until the end he emphasized that he was innocent. Even if there was serious evidence that spoke against what Jack claimed. For me, doubts remain.

Did he also talk to you about the murder of Margret Schäfer, for which he spent a long time in prison?

Wagner: No, never. He couldn’t talk about it.

Others would have been shocked.

Wagner: I think I repressed what he did. I made up my own truth. Jack had a difficult childhood, and he committed the murder while under the influence of drugs. That was reason enough for me. Of course, I was partly blinded, after all I loved him.

Jack Unterweger died in 1994. He took his own life. What did that do to you?

Wagner: I warned the judiciary. I was already afraid that he would do something to himself. When I found out he had hanged himself, I broke down. I didn’t want to believe it. Jack was close to me. He was my great love. The time after his death was hard.

Did the relationship have any impact on your job? In an interview with “” you said: “This encounter shaped my entire life, my entire career.”

Wagner: I had to move away from Graz because Jack suddenly put me in the public eye. At the same time, the relationship with him also helped me. There are many clients who think it’s good that I dare to do something. That I don’t shy away from serious cases and represent even the worst criminals in court.

Unterweger and Fritzl also hang as portraits in their meeting room today. What fascinates you so much about evil?

Wagner: I want to show that it’s often not that easy. Refute prejudices. I want to convince the jury that even a murderer isn’t just evil. That actions have their stories. I ended up in criminal law because I am a fighter. I have always been fascinated by the border areas where life and death are at stake. If I hadn’t become a lawyer, I might have become an emergency doctor or a war reporter. Who knows.

Editor’s note: In Austria, juries are used for the main trial when a defendant can be punished with a particularly long or even life sentence for a crime that he is accused of.

The fact that Wagner is polarizing can also be seen in another topic: the lawyer was reported for incitement after taking part in a pro-Palestine rally in Vienna, as the “Standard” reports, among others. In an interview with the Austria Press Agency (APA), she herself described the ad as “outrageous” and said that she had only quoted from “judgments of administrative courts”. Wagner wants to defend himself against the police action “with all legal options”.