The Gender of Murder

Laurie Bembenek, of "Run, Bambi, Run" fame

Two “femme fatales” were in the news last week.

Laurie Bembenek, accused killer turned folk hero (“Run, Bambi, Run”) died of liver cancer at the age of 52 in Portland, Ore. A former Playboy bunny and a Milwaukee police officer, Bembenek was convicted of the 1981 murder of her husband’s ex-wife. She escaped from prison in 1990 and fled to Canada. She was recaptured and, after a new trial, was sentenced to time served and set free. To the end, she proclaimed her innocence.

On the other side of the world, in Italy, former Seattle college student Amanda Knox recently appealed her murder conviction and 26-year sentence. Her lawyer predicted a “harsh and violent legal clash” because the prosecution demands a life sentence, and the defense wants an acquittal. The case is complex. In short: A 21-year-old British student named Meredith Kercher was sexually assaulted, choked and stabbed to deathon Nov. 1, 2007 in Perugia, Italy.

The world loves the idea offemme fatales. They’re all around us, from Elizabeth Bathory, aka The Blood Countess, who allegedly bathed in the blood of young women in 16th-century Hungary, to our own Salem witch trials in 1692-1693, to Gene Tierney in the 1945 film“Leave Her to Heaven.” (So evil was Tierney’s villain that the actress’s biography tells the story of a cook who refused to serve her dinner. Legend has it Tierney considered it the highest compliment she’d ever been paid.)

In more recent times Linda Fiorentino served up a delectable vixen in the 1994 film “The Last Seduction.” (The film features one of the more creative, cringe-inducing murders I’ve ever seen — pepper spray shot down her husband’s throat. Yikes.)

Glenn Close mainstreamed the idea of female stalker in 1987’s “Fatal Attraction,” which was adapted from the more dignified, subtle and realistic 1980 made-for-TV British film “Diversion.”And before “Fatal Attraction,” there was the 1971 Clint Eastwood film “Play Misty for Me,” about a radio disc jockey pursued by an aggressive, obsessed fan. And before “Play Misty for Me,”Hollywood happily churned out predatory vamps in the 1930s and 1940s.

The character was such a staple of movie history that director Roman Polanski used it to brilliant effect in what is arguably one of the top 10 movies of all time, “Chinatown” (1974). In an interview, Polanski said he played off the “black widow” stereotype that was common in 1937 Los Angeles, where the story is set. Both the audience and private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) do not know quite what to make of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). The irony, as we learn by film’s end, is that in fact Evelyn was the only character in the film whose motives were completely altruistic.

One reason “Chinatown” is revered by the public and scholars alike is that it still works as a mirror to society today. We may love to hate evil women. But there aren’t that many of them.Here are the Department of Justice statistics:

65.3 percent — Male offender/Male victim
22.7 percent — Male offender/Female victim
9.6 percent — Female offender/Male victim
2.4 percent — Female offender/Female victim

Men commit 88 percent of murders. One would have to presume that of the 12 percent of murders committed by women, many are the byproduct of years of abuse and can be successfully defended. In court it’s known as the battered-woman defense.

Ten percent of male murder victims were the boyfriend, husband or ex-husband of the killer. But when it comes to female victims, six times as many — 60 percent — were killed by an intimate.

As disturbing as infanticide is, the practice is not new or uncommon, according to anthropologist Laila Williamson. “Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunter gatherers to high civilizations, including our own ancestors. Rather than being an exception, then, it has been the rule.”

The cause was usually lack of resources, and the method of death was often abandonment and exposure or the more passive approach of neglect and starvation. Infanticide estimates run as high as 50 percent of births in prehistoric times, but Williamson believes 15 to 20 percent is a more accurate figure. The advance of civilization didn’t necessarily help the cause of children, since they could be sacrificed to the gods. Ancient Greeks offered up every 10th child (they “decimated” the population).

In modern times, high-profile cases create the impression that women are more lethal to children than men. Andrea Yates drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001. In 1994 Susan Smith ran her car into a lake, killing her two toddlers in the back seat. In 1983 Diane Downs shot her three children, an event that was recounted by true-crime author Ann Rule in “Small Sacrifices.”

With all this notoriety you’d think most infanticide is committed by women, but according to the Department of Justice, 62 percent of child killers are men. With eldercide, the percentage is even higher: 85 percent of those dispatching the elderly to the Great Beyond are males.

Even when women do the killing, there usually seems to be a man in the picture, in one way or another. Both Diane Downs and Susan Smith were attempting to win over men who didn’t want children. Even in today’s more equitable era, we continue to hear of children dying at the hands of the ever-present live-in boyfriend. (Who do I choose? My violent boyfriend or my kids? Give me a minute to think . . .)

Betty Broderick, convicted in 1991 of murdering her ex-husband and his new wife, is now 62 years old. She has been in jail longer than she was married to her victim. Earlier this year,Broderick was denied release after the California parole board heard her “rambling statement in which she continued to blame her actions on her husband’s extramarital affair and their bitter divorce.” Here again, a man figures into the equation. Broderick comes as close as anyone to fulfilling the role of the scorned, wrathful woman so popular in fiction and film.

Stereotypes always start with a kernel of truth. The problems come when a stereotype gets grafted onto innocent women because the public likes a good story. Case in point: Objective observers believe Laurie Bembenek was framed. After her death on Nov. 20, Bembenek’s family members announced they would continue the fight to clear her name.

Amanda Knox, the 23-year-old foreign-exchange student from Seattle, is beginning her fourth year in jail. NBC “Dateline” lays out the details of the case.

Laws differ from country to country. In Italy jury members are free to read as much press as they please. And boy, did the Italian press ever love the narrative of an American student killing her British roommate with the help of her week-old Italian boyfriend and a local drifter and drug dealer during an orgy that turned violent.

That drifter, Rudy Guede, was caught fleeing the country after the murder. His DNA, bloody hand print and footprint were found near Kercher’s body. He’s been convicted of Kercher’s murder and today he’s serving a life sentence. Last March Guede admitted to his cellmate that Knox and her boyfriend were not there.

Since the killer is behind bars, why haven’t the powers that be let Knox and her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, go? Some speculate that Italians are embarrassed. Last January,Knox’s prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, was convicted of abuse of office and was sentenced to 16 months in prison.

In all cases, half of Italian convictions are overturned on appeal, so you’d think Knox’s release would be a no-brainer. But will Italy be willing to let go of the narrative it embraced?

Writes one Huffington Post commenter:

The Italian authorities (and the British press) saw in Amanda Knox the violent, arrogant, hyper-sexual stereotypes that they see as typically American. Americans saw an apparently normal college student. . . . To me, the case has all the characteristics of the initial trials of people later exonerated through the effort of the Innocence Project, the high profile crime, the false confession, the unreliable eye-witnesses and the blinkered prosecution who adjusted the theory to fit inconvenient evidence. And these trials, and the ongoing exonerations are in America. And there’s one more characteristic, it’s never the sheriff’s brother-in-law who was falsely convicted. It’s always an outsider, the poor black kid or the heavy-metal headbanger. And to the Italian police, at a time when America was deeply unpopular in Europe, Amanda Knox was the outsider.

Paul Ciolino, a private investigator hired by CBS news, called it “a railroad job from Hell.” He said Knox was “clearly innocent.”

The tragic case of Amanda Knox is not the first time the public has clung to a compelling story while ignoring facts. We like good stories. But when innocent people are languishing in jail for crimes they did not commit (“West Memphis Three Case: Court Orders New Evidentiary Hearings“), what entertains or satisfies us is irrelevant. Only facts matter.

In other news last week, ex-boyfriend Steven Pieper was arrested for the murder of 20-year-old dance student Jenni-Lyn Waston, who vanished from her family’s Liverpool, N.Y., home on Nov. 19.

A guy. Not a jealous roommate. Not a psychotic mother. Not a participant in a satanic ritual. Just a guy who used to date her. The world is saddened, but not surprised.

[originally published by Politics Daily in 2010]

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About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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