‘It’s about more than just a crime’: what if a teen killer was actually a victim? | Documentary

Jhe name Caril Ann Fugate may not mean anything to you, but she probably lives somewhere in the recesses of your mind. Fugate was one half of the teenage couple who embarked on a murder spree in 1958, tearing Nebraska and Wyoming apart and taking the lives of 11 victims, including mother, stepfather and young half- Fugate’s sister. The story captivated American audiences and became a meme before there were memes. Without Fugate, who was 14, and Charles Starkweather, an 18-year-old dropout who cultivated a James Dean tune, there probably wouldn’t be Badlands or Natural Born Killers. The title track of Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album Nebraska is sung from Starkweather’s perspective.

Bow-legged and barely 5ft 5in tall, Starkweather was every inch the ruthless rebel with his black moto jacket and the cigarette that was a permanent part of his scowl. With his blank expression, Fugate was harder to read, even after Starkweather was executed. Fugate was sentenced to life in prison, and the images of her behind bars evoke an Antonioni heroine: aloof, submissive, unrepentant.

A disturbing new version of Fugate emerges in The 12th Victim, Showtime’s four-part docuseries that re-examine their legacy and poke holes in the narrative. Using archival footage and interviews with a parade of pundits, the series takes its time to unravel the history that has held America in its grip and pushed the people of Lincoln, Nebraska, pushing furniture against their doors for fear of encountering teenage murderers. Eventually, the project slips out of real, familiar crime territory and stakes new ground. What if Fugate hadn’t been the willing accomplice? What if she was a captive, and a victim herself?

“This is more than just a crime,” Nicola B Marsh, the show’s director, told The Guardian. “It’s about acquiescence and guilt.” Marsh has spent most of her career working as a cinematographer (including on the Oscar-winning film 20 Feet From Stardom). None of the work she’s done, including the TV series Song Exploder and a documentary about transgender skateboarder Leo Baker, have focused on true crime, which might explain her unorthodox and feminist approach to this project.

In the year and a half that Marsh researched and filmed the series, the tale of two ruthless, passion-drunken teenagers crumbled. What emerged was a more complicated picture: a boy going through a psychotic breakdown and a 14-year-old girl doing her best to protect the people she loved – and to protect herself. Fugate had recently broken up with Starkweather when he showed up on the doorstep of his family home. He told him to do as he said or he would kill his family. Only later, according to Fugate, did she learn that he had already murdered them. “Even at 14, I think the reaction is, I have to lower the temperature. I have to lower their heart rate,” says Marsh. resist him maybe not very hard very quickly, because you are convinced that you will be able to stabilize the situation and that things will be okay.”

While the Showtime series dutifully fuels the true crime spree that dominates podcast and documentary programming, it takes a meta-approach to its investigation. Along with examining what really happened to Fugate and his reasons for sticking by Starkweather, he examines the overriding impulse to classify the duo as a pair of violent and passionate lovebirds. “It’s not a good story unless they’re lovers of individualism and freedom,” Jean Munley, the author of The Rise of True Crime, said in his interview. “Nobody wants to know that a 14-year-old girl was raped and forced to participate in a series of murders.”

The 12th Victim includes film clips inspired by the Starkweather story: Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands, Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers. Absent from the series are numerous crime scene photographs, images that show the gruesome and psychosexual nature of the murders. “I felt strong enough and Liza [Ward, the novelist granddaughter of two of Starkweather’s victims] I’m sure it’s really traumatic for the loved ones of people who have been murdered that the most well-known photo of that person is from the crime scene,” Marsh says.

Fugate was paroled in 1976 and resettled in small town Michigan, where she worked in a hospital and after hours as a nanny. Starting over was not really possible. Her reputation hung over her like a shadow, and after decades of living in the grip of trauma, she decided to tell the world what really happened.

Caril Ann Fugate and Charles Starkweather
Carl Ann Fugate and Charles Starkweather. Photography: Courtesy of Showtime

It is only in the fourth and final episode that the series engages in an interrogation of the dominant narrative and presents a different version. A softer, more relaxed Fugate appears in home video footage of a surprise birthday party attended by a group of teddy bears and the two children she cares for who clearly adore her. She appears on the TV show Lie Detector and breaks down in tears when the host, F Lee Bailey, informs her that she passed the test.

One of the main supporters was Linda Battisti, a lifelong true crime fan and former Justice Department attorney. She read Fugate’s trial transcripts at the local library and thought the facts in Fugate’s confession didn’t match. “I couldn’t help but think that prosecutors knew she was innocent,” she says. “The idea of ​​them moving forward was dreadful. But I think they thought they could get away with it because she was a no-nonsense girl, nobody, white trash.

Battisti eventually quit her job and spent 12 years researching the Nebraska murders for The Twelfth Victim, the book she co-wrote and on which the series is based. Battisti, who appears on the show as a talking head, hopes the show will raise awareness and that Fugate might get a pardon. Fugate, 79, now lives in Ohio and says her main goal is to be buried next to her mother when she dies. “People don’t really realize that I also lost my family,” she says.

“We know so much more about a miner’s brain today than anyone back then,” says Battisti. “If I had been a 14-year-old girl and someone had said, ‘I’m going to kill your parents unless you do everything I say,’ I would believe them to save my family.”

The mess of the Fugate affair still unsettles Marsh. “There were probably times when she could have escaped and could have told someone, and she didn’t,” the director says. “But when you look at Caril’s story and put yourself in her shoes, I think a lot of people would have done what she did.”

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