Our Obsession with Female Accused Killers
Let’s make one thing clear at the outset: If Jodi Arias was Johnny Arias and Casey Anthony was Kevin Anthony with almost identical facts, the media and public wouldn’t care about their still-salacious trials. That’s right; it’s time to admit that the fascination, sometimes national obsession, with trials of women accused of murder is clearly related to their gender, looks and race.
So what is it about a young attractive (white) woman charged with taking a life or lives that captivates us so? Well, isn’t it obvious? The media is forever drawn to . . . young attractive women. Ok, but there is much more to the story.
First, the facts: 85 percent of serial killers are men, and men are up to nine times more likely to kill than women. Women and men also tend to kill differently and for different reasons. Three decades of data through 2005 demonstrate that about 42 percent of female murderers’ victims were lovers or family. Only 8.7 percent were strangers. In contrast, one study shows that 87 percent of male serial killers had killed at least one stranger.
Besides the statistical differences regarding the murders themselves, another reason for our fascination with women on trial may also stem from the fact that men charged with murder are more likely to be convicted (and receive harsher sentences). After all, it is far more exciting to watch a trial when the outcome is not a forgone conclusion.
One consistent element, however, which is catnip for a ratings-desperate media, and often perverted public, is sex — and I’m not talking about gender. From Arias and Anthony to Aileen Wournos and the older case of Charlene Gallego, these were women not just accused of murder, but also with a graphic sexual component to all of their cases. Arias’ testimony often sounded more like a hard core porno movie than a courtroom, as she claimed self-defense alleging (in her third account of what she says really happened) that she was sexually controlled by her now-dead boyfriend, Travis Alexander. Before her acquittal, Casey Anthony’s sex life and demeanor after her daughter went missing became a focus for the prosecution and media alike. Serial killer Aileen Wournos’ story is marked by incest, an early pregnancy at age 13, a marriage to a 70-year-old man, a lesbian tryst, and finally, work as a prostitute where she murdered her victims. In the 1970s, Charlene Gallego was one half of the first known husband and wife serial killer duo, known in the news as the “sex slave killers” because they murdered ten victims, luring some of them into their van where they hog-tied, raped and killed them.
Attractive women accused of murder with a sexual backdrop is an obvious explanation, but there is a separate bucket of female killers whose cases garner attention far and wide: child killers. These are the still generally white and young women who inexplicably kill their own children. The first truly infamous child killer (and female mass murderer) in American history may have been Belle Gunness, who murdered several victims, including husbands, suitors, boyfriends and her children in the late 19th century. More recently there was Andrea Yates, who drowned her five kids one by one in the bathtub in 2001. And Susan Smith, the mom who tearfully lied on national television in 1994 about the “disappearance of her children,” while she knew they lay dead at the bottom of a lake where she left them. Just in the past year, the cases of Chelsea Thornton, who shot one child and drowned the other, and Elzbieta Plackowska, who allegedly stabbed her 5-year-old son and his friend, have garnered national media.
There is a third category which, sadly, gets far less attention: women who kill truly abusive partners like the cases of Brenda Clubine and LaVelma Byrd. Clubine was sentenced to 15 to life after murdering her abusive husband when he locked her in a motel room and threatened her life. Byrd was convicted and sentenced to 25 to life for killing her pastor husband in self-defense while he was beating her with a telephone. Considering 1 in 4 women will be the victim of domestic violence in her lifetime, these cases shouldn’t be as surprising as the media makes them seem . . . when they are covered. Both Clubine and Byrd have become advocates for other female victims of abuse, and both women are featured in the documentary ‘Sin by Silence‘ about the topic. The controversial “battered women’s syndrome” eventually released Brenda Clubine from prison, but only after she served 26 years.
What about the fact that it seems they are all white? There is undoubtedly at least a tinge of racism (which is far more disturbing when talking about crime victims as opposed to the accused) in the coverage, but maybe it’s also the reality that 95 percent of female serial killers, for example, are white.
So despite extensive media coverage, we clearly do not have a national scourge of female killers. Yet that, in and of itself, is likely reason number one that the media focuses on these sorts of trials: it’s news. News is by definition not the norm or the expected, but those unique, surprising and important developments. Merriam Webster dictionary defines something as newsworthy when it is “interesting enough to the general public to warrant reporting.” A young, attractive woman accused of murder is interesting, in particular, because it’s rare and defies many societal expectations. This is not to justify the coverage, but rather to simply articulate the reality. They make good copy, great headlines, and often compelling television and even movies. However, let’s take care not to lay all the blame on the media. The media wouldn’t focus on female killers if it didn’t have a partner in crime, a public obsessed with evaluating, understanding and ultimately judging these women accused of the most heinous of crimes.