The U.S. crime news du jour is dominated by the sickening story of the death of Marsha Spicer in Missouri. Her murderers – the team of Dena Riley and Richard Davis – videotaped the two-hour ordeal of rape and torture that they put poor Marsha through before they finally choked her to death and buried her in a shallow grave.
This is, sorry to say, a known phenomenon in the history of crime. The cases of male/female team killers go as far back as… our technology allows.
By that I mean – it wasn’t until the advent of audiotape and videotape that prosecutors and the public were capable of believing that a woman could willingly participate in a sex-murder. Up until it was possible for such murderous couples to record their acts, women were routinely given the benefit of the doubt. “Why, she must have been horribly abused,” many said of the female half of such duos. “A masochistic, surely. Forced to participate because she feared for her own life.”
That’s what prosecutors in Canada assumed when confronted with the horrors of Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo (see the Crime Library article). Then the videos surfaced. But it was too late – Homolka pled out with a slap on the wrist and is a free woman today.
Sadly, the lesson could have been learned much earlier. In the mid-60s, the team killers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady -- the infamous Moors Murderers – audiotaped and photographed their violations and killings of children. Myra couldn’t employ "the devil made me do it” defense because it was all on tape. From prison she would admit, “Without me, those crimes could probably not have been committed." (See Hindley’s obituary from the BBC.)
Even so, the sentencing judge gratuitously remarked, "Though I believe Brady is wicked beyond belief without hope of redemption, I cannot feel that the same is necessarily true of Hindley once she is removed from his influence."
Nonsense and hogwash. But there it is. The lady is given undue deference – a perennial theme in the annals of crime – even where she herself admitted being an indispensable perpetrator in the atrocities. Even our most respected criminologists make the strange assertion that such women "fall somewhere in the middle: both victim and perpetrator" (John Douglas, The Anatomy of Motive).
And there is another example from the mid-'80s. The couple, Debra Brown and Alton Coleman, went on a months-long rape and murder rampage throughout the Midwest (see this summary). Their crimes weren't recorded, but they left so many bloody fingerprints all over the place that there was no denying their deeds. After they were caught, Debra Brown would admit committing murders and that she didn't "give a damn. I had fun out of it." Both were eventually sentenced to death in more than one state. Coleman has already been executed. But Miss Brown is still alive, and one of her death sentences was commuted by the governor of Ohio. That deference again.
And let's not forget that Charles Starkweather was executed -- Caril Fugate paroled.
Gerald Gallego was executed -- Charlene Gallego paroled. (oops: he died in cancer while in prison at 56.)
Douglas Clark got the death penalty -- Carol Bundy got 25 to life.
And there’s an interesting thread running through the many stories making the rounds about Missouri’s Riley and Davis. Look at the coverage and you’ll notice that it is the man whose photo and name always appear first in the articles. I’d challenge you to find me one article that lists the lady’s name or image first.
And now the question arises – what to do with them? The crime occurred in Missouri, which is a death-penalty state. But should prosecutors pursue it? Sure, they deserve to be dragged by their hair to the nearest concrete wall and shot like rabid dogs. Unfortunately, the Constitution requires a bit more process than that, even where the videotape evidence is sufficient to find them guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Since the prosecutors in Missouri can’t order a perfunctory execution, that makes the question of punishment a bit more thorny.
How, you ask? How could any reasonable person hesitate before urging the pair strapped to gurney for a much-deserved early death?
Because I don’t have to sit on the jury. Neither do you, hopefully. But if prosecutors pursue the death penalty, then twelve people, not to mention the judge, the prosecutors, the poor schmucks from the public defender’s office who draw the short straw on this one, not to mention the victim’s family, are going to have to watch that videotape. The unfortunate lawyer who was stuck defending Alton Coleman and Denise Brown would later say that representing them "was one of the worst experiences in my legal career."
Perhaps the advantage in having the death penalty available in such a case is the ability to have a quick plea. Throw the pair in a dungeon and forget about them.
But don’t forget the lessons that we could learn from such cases. Women do participate in sex-murders, and are no less culpable than the man.
Hopefully nobody will have to watch that sickening video to get it this time.