The Viennese criminal lawyer Astrid Wagner is a polarizing figure. Among other things, she defended Josef Fritzl, who kept his daughter imprisoned in the basement and abused him for years – and was in love with the female murderer Jack Unterweger. A conversation about the evil in people, prejudices and repression.

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

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

Why did you design the entrance area of ​​your office in this way? It seems as if you are celebrating evil.

Wagner: It’s the conference room, not the entrance area. But it fits. My premises are not a kindergarten, but a criminal law firm. 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 to a man on the phone who allegedly made a death threat. He was crying, completely desperate. I tried to calm him down. That’s more of a lawyer’s everyday life. 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 that is not the only such case. I recently spoke to a mother who, in a fit of madness, drowned her daughters. They were six years and nine months old. She thought the two had a terrible life ahead of them and wanted to put them out of their misery. That was in mid-summer 2023. Now she is taking medication and the madness is gone. The woman sees what she has done. And she cannot believe it.

You sound so matter-of-fact. Don’t stories like this touch you at all?

Wagner: No. It’s like forensic pathologists. They also cut up dead bodies. If they were to let everything get to them, the horror of the injuries and deaths that they have to investigate, they would hardly be able to do their job.

Yes, perhaps.

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

Why are crimes committed?

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

I remember a documentary about a serial killer who, when he was six years old, had to watch his father beat a puppy to death. I thought to myself: the empathy center was destroyed. That has consequences. That can lead to people doing bad things.

Nevertheless, many serious crimes are inexcusable.

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

What does it mean then?

Wagner: That society has a responsibility. That a better environment leads to fewer crimes. But that is common knowledge, I’m really not telling you anything new.

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

Wagner: Anyone who has committed a crime must be punished. That is certain. Punishment is important for society – as a preventative measure and as atonement. But I believe that victims and their relatives can deal with a crime better if they realize that the perpetrator also has a story.

You mean find some kind 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, he could have been completely beside himself. But none of that happened. On the contrary. In court he hugged the man who had pushed him in front of the train and said: “I want to forgive you.” I think you have to make peace with what happened in order to be able to move on with your life.

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

Wagner: I have a clear conscience. I do what is in keeping with my nature. I am empathetic and can therefore even understand people who have killed others. Of course, I would not act like them myself. Life is something sacred to me. I also find it reprehensible to kill a cat or a dog, for example. The punishments are less severe.

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 Josef Fritzls in the general population is very high. People hate what is inside them. Their own dark desires are projected onto people like Josef Fritzl.

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

How did you even get involved in the case?

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

It sounds like you have very few exclusion criteria when it comes to your clients.

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

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 appears 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. The kind of person you’d want 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 people become malicious as they get older. Not Mr. Fritzl. He now suffers from dementia. The psychiatric expert says that he is no longer dangerous.

This all sounds so harmless. But Josef Fritzl did something evil.

Wagner: That’s true. But I think he’s repressing it. Mr. Fritzl is undergoing psychotherapy, which is very important to him. He keeps saying that he regrets his actions. But he’s 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. That must also apply to Josef Fritzl.

Wagner: That’s right. What fascinates me about Mr. Fritzl is his will to survive. Anyone who is sentenced to life imprisonment at the age of 70 and thinks he will live until he is well over 100 must be extremely optimistic.

The depths of Josef F.

Have you ever been afraid of one of your clients?

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

Do you think that people can be divided into “good” and “bad”?

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

You became particularly close to one criminal in the past. You fell in love with Jack Unterweger, a convicted murderer of women. How did that come about?

Wagner: Jack was in prison for 16 years for killing 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 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 found him interesting straight away.

What did you talk about with Jack during the 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 the whole thing might not end well. That Jack might be convicted of multiple murders. For a while it looked good. But then came the DNA report, which changed everything. A hair was found on the seat of his BMW that most likely came from one of the victims. Jack was sentenced to life imprisonment for nine counts of murder.

To this day you doubt his guilt.

Wagner: I spoke to Jack about the serial murders very often. He denied everything. Until the end he stressed that he was innocent. Even though there was serious evidence that spoke against what Jack claimed. I still have doubts.

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 justice system. I was already afraid that he would harm himself. When I found out that 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 consequences for your career? In an interview with “” you said: “This encounter shaped my whole 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 helped me. There are many clients who like the fact that I dare to do something. That I don’t shy away from difficult cases and that I represent even the worst criminals in court.

Portraits of Unterweger and Fritzl now hang in your conference room. What is it about evil that fascinates you so much?

Wagner: I want to show that it is often not that easy. To refute prejudices. I want to convince the jury that even a murderer is not just evil. That crimes 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, then maybe I would have been an emergency doctor or a war reporter. Who knows.

Editor’s note: In Austria, jurors are called upon to preside over the main trial when a defendant can be sentenced to a particularly long or even life imprisonment for a crime he is accused of.

The fact that Wagner is polarizing is also currently evident in another topic: the lawyer was reported for incitement after taking part in a pro-Palestine rally in Vienna, as reported by the “Standard” newspaper, among others. In an interview with the Austria Press Agency (APA), she herself described the complaint as “outrageous” and said that she had merely quoted from “judgments by administrative courts”. Wagner wants to defend herself against the police action “with all legal means at her disposal”.