Twelfth Victim

"The Twelfth Victim: The Innocence of Caril Fugate in the Starkweather Murder Rampage" by Linda Battisti and John Stevens Berry Sr., Addicus Books,  250 pages, $21.95

These two authors, both lawyers, have written a powerful and disturbing book about what they call a major, even brutal, miscarriage of justice that took place in Lincoln many years ago. They argue,  persuasively, in a book full of hard evidence, that Caril Fugate, the one-time girlfriend of spree killer Charles Starkweather, was an innocent victim forced to accompany him on his murderous rampage, in which 11 people were murdered, that began in Lincoln and ended eight days later on a Wyoming highway.

It all began 56 years ago on a cold January day in 1958 when Caril was 14 years old and an eighth-grader at Whittier Junior High School in Lincoln. She arrived home from school that afternoon and was greeted at the door by Starkweather, holding a gun. Unknown to Caril, he had already killed her parents and young sister. He forced her to accompany him, telling her that if she tried to escape he would return and kill her family.

When the rampage ended in Wyoming eight days later and a sheriff's car pulled up behind them, Caril leaped from the car and ran for safety, crying out, as the deputy sheriff told the press, "He's going to kill me. He's crazy. He's just killed a man."

In custody, Starkweather told authorities that Caril had no part in the killings. But later, after she followed the suggestion of the sheriff to send Starkweather a note, telling him she never wanted to see him again, he changed his story and would later tell authorities that she was his accomplice and that if he had to go to the electric chair she should be required to sit on his lap.

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Starkweather was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. At her trial, his statements were used against Caril, and somehow the authorities and the jury believed him. The authors ask, as will readers of this book, how could his story be considered credible? Lincoln had been caught up in fear earlier as the news of the multiple killings appeared in the press. Was the jury that would consider the charges against Caril also caught up in fear? She was found guilty of being an accessory to first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. She was paroled in 1976 and now lives in Michigan.

She was a juvenile and in the court system was treated as an adult. This would not happen today. She did not have early access to an attorney. This would not happen today. She was a frightened 14-year old hostage and was treated as an adult criminal. It is unlikely that would happen today.

The authors refer to "the travesty of the Caril Fugate trial."

Readers, I think, will agree that it was a travesty. At the end, the authors write that Starkweather "killed eleven innocent people during his rampage. … Caril Fugate was (his) twelfth victim."

John Stevens Berry Sr. is a Lincoln attorney. Linda Battisti is a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice. She lives in Ohio.


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