LONDON, March 26 (JTA) — A retired Austrian neurologist whose trial for alleged Nazi war crimes was adjourned indefinitely may have celebrated too soon.
Judge Karlheinz Seewald stopped the trial just 20 minutes after it started last week — after a psychiatrist testified that Heinrich Gross is suffering from dementia.
But Seewald is now believed to be having second thoughts after the 84- year-old Gross told a television interviewer that the state did not have enough evidence to try him for complicity in the murder of nine children at Vienna’s Am Spiegelgrund Clinic during World War II.
The judge said it was “completely impossible to understand” how a man who was suffering from dementia could have given such an interview.
At the same time, prosecutor Michael Klackl called for new tests to be performed on Gross, possibly by a German expert.
Gross’ postwar job as an expert psychological witness in Vienna’s courts until 1998 had given him too many ties to Austrian psychologists, Klackl suggested.
At last week’s abbreviated trial, Gross appeared to be frail and confused.
“Can you understand me?” the judge asked.
“Badly,” replied Gross.
“Can you understand anything?” asked the judge.
“A little,” replied Gross.
The judge then told the court that the psychiatric report showed that Gross was suffering from a “disturbance of the central nervous system caused by dementia and Parkinson’s syndrome.”
Declaring that “Gross’ ability to understand what is going on is limited,” Seewald announced an indefinite postponement of the trial, noting that Gross “cannot fully make use of his rights as a defendant.”
At the time, it was considered unlikely that the trial — which would have been the first significant war crimes case in Austria since 1975 — would ever resume.
Gross, who was known at the wartime clinic as “The Scythe” — a reference to the Grim Reaper — was tried and convicted on a single count of manslaughter in 1950. He was sentenced to two years in jail, but the verdict and sentence were overturned by Austria’s Supreme Court, which ordered a retrial.
However the Austrian authorities, anxious to draw a veil over their Nazi past, never pursued the retrial. Gross went on to become an eminent, and wealthy, neurologist.
Four years ago, Austrian prosecutors reopened the Gross case after fresh evidence became available to the Justice Ministry from the previously sealed files of the Stasi secret police in the former East Germany.
In 1960, Gross was appointed a psychiatric expert to the Vienna district court, a position he held until just two years ago.
Observers say Gross was the most widely used court criminal psychologist after the war and that his expertise helped to convict thousands of suspects.
But recent investigations into his alleged actions at the Vienna clinic are said to have uncovered evidence that he did not always act impartially in his postwar court work.
According to Green Party legislator Karl Oellinger, who is leading demands for the public inquiry into the case, “Gross was an opportunist — from working with the Nazis to serving as a court official.
“At Am Spiegelgrund, the mentally and physically disabled were persecuted as well as those from deprived social backgrounds,” he said.
“Anyone in court who fits in this category would have a good argument that Gross was prejudiced against them. And of course his evidence would have influenced the judge.”
Social Democrat Party justice spokesman Hannes Jarolim agreed the Gross affair was undermining faith in Austria’s legal system.
It is believed that if Gross were to be convicted, Austrian courts would likely face a stream of appeals by people who were convicted on the evidence that Gross had provided as an expert witness.
There is no record of the exact number of trials in which Gross’ evidence was used to obtain a conviction, but according to wage records for 1980 and 1983, he earned some $300,000 from his court work alone.