Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate Trials: 1958
Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate
Defendants: Charles Starkweather, Caril Fugate
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: T. Clement Gaughan, William F. Matschullat, John McArthur
Chief Prosecutors: Elmer Scheele, Dale Fahrnbruch
Judge: Harry A. Spencer
Place: Lincoln, Nebraska
Dates of Trials: Starkweather: May 5-23, 1958; Fugate: October 27-November 21, 1958
Sentence: Starkweather: death; Fugate: life imprisonment
SIGNIFICANCE: Can a dysfunctional upbringing ever excuse homicide? That was the question facing jurors in this remarkable saga that changed forever the face of murder in America.
Although he had murdered a few weeks before, Charlie Starkweather, a diminutive 19-year-old garbage truck driver from Lincoln, Nebraska, didn't begin killing in earnest until January 21, 1958. This was the day when he visited the home of his girlfriend, Caril Fugate, aged 14. While awaiting her return, Starkweather got into an argument with Fugate's mother. When she tried to slap him, he grabbed a rifle and shot her. Seconds later, Fugate's stepfather was similarly dispatched. Minutes later Fugate arrived home, at which point Starkweather stabbed her 2-year-old half-sister to death.
Then, after pinning up a notice in the window that read "Every Body is Sick with the Flu," the couple hunkered down for the next six days, watching television, having sex, gorging themselves on fast food. In that time various people visited the house and met the two teenagers. No one noticed anything out of the ordinary.
One week later, alerted by an anxious relative, police officers called at the house and uncovered the massacre. But there was no sign of the wanted couple.
Another week passed before they were captured. In that time they had gone on a killing binge across Nebraska, littering the highway with bodies, until their final tally reached 11 victims. When eventually arrested, Starkweather mugged for the cameras like some psychotic James Dean, cigarette drooping from his mouth—America's first rock 'n' roll killer had just been born. By this time Fugate had already washed her hands of him.
They were tried separately, Starkweather first. He swaggered into court on May 5, 1958, before Judge Harry Spencer, to face a single count of murder, that of Robert Jensen. The facts were not in dispute, and neither was Starkweather's culpability; at issue was his mental state.
Earlier Starkweather had pointedly refused to cooperate with attempts to save his life through a plea of insanity, sneering, "Nobody remembers a crazy man." Now, when his chief counsel, T. Clement Gaughan, told the jury that Starkweather's IQ was "only a point or two above an idiot," the defendant's knuckles whitened as he gripped the desk in rage. Starkweather, it seemed, would rather die in the electric chair than be classified as mentally subnormal.
Once on the stand, he grudgingly told how it was to grow up in an unfeeling family, to be born bow-legged and half blind with a speech impediment, a figure of constant ridicule amongst other children. But it didn't take him long to crush any sympathy this might have engendered. His absurd rationalization and ingrained callousness couldn't help spilling over.
"Why did you kill, Charlie?" asked Gaughan.
"Do you feel any remorse for the people you killed?"
"I won't answer that."
If Starkweather wouldn't help himself, others were prepared to do the job for him. Dr. Nathan Greenbaum, just one of three psychiatrists to testify on the defendant's behalf, told the court that "Charles Starkweather is suffering from a severe mental disease or illness of such a kind as to influence his acts … people don't mean anything to him. They are no more than a stick or a piece of wood to this boy."
In his final address, Gaughan spread the blame far and wide. "This boy is a product of our society. Our society that spawned this individual is looking for a scapegoat." Then he touched on a subject that had terrified many Nebraskans, the prospect that, if found insane, Starkwearher might one day be released. "Even an act of Congress will not take him out of the state hospital."
County Attorney Elmer Scheele countered by telling the jury, "Let's get back to earth, get our feet on the ground … Can't you see what a hoax it is to persuade you into grasping at the straw of insanity?" He ended by urging them "to protect this community—our families, yours and mine—from the defendant."
When the jury returned families, from their deliberations on May 23, the verdict was guilty and the sentence was death.
Hostage or Killer?
The trial of Caril Fugate, which began four months after Starkweather was condemned, was in most respects a carbon copy of the first; with many of the same principals, and many of the same witnesses, who gave much the same testimony. Naturally, most interest centered on the defendant's age. At 14, Fugate was the youngest female ever to be tried for first-degree murder in America. Despite this, under Nebraska law, she could still face the electric chair if convicted. Right from the moment of her arrest, she protested her innocence of any involvement in the murders, claiming that she had been Starkweather's abused hostage, nothing more. As her attorney, John McArthur, put it, "This girl was introduced into this horrible sequence of events by opening the door and having a gun stuck in her face."
Starkweather had also toed this line originally, insisting that Fugate had nothing to do with the crimes, but as she turned against him, so his attitude hardened to the point where he agreed to turn state's evidence. While Fugate fixed him with her most withering glare, he told the court of the day he killed her family.
"What did you do after all this happened?" asked Scheele.
"I cleaned up."
"When you were cleaning up, what was Caril Fugate doing?"
Desperate to rattle the witness, McArthur read out one of Starkweather's earliest statements in which he maintained that Fugate was his hostage. "Do you recall that?" asked McArthur.
"That's what I said, but it ain't true. That whole statement is a bunch of hogwash," drawled Starkweather.
McArthur also reminded the witness of his much-quoted remark made earlier, that if he "fried in the electric chair" then Fugate should be "sitting in his lap." Did he still feel the same way?
"No, I don't. Now I don't care if she lives or dies."
There were others, besides Starkweather, who linked Fugate to the killings. Most damning of all was Deputy Sheriff William Romer, with his claim that Fugate told him she had actually seen her family being murdered.
In closing arguments it was noticeable that Scheele singularly avoided asking for the death penalty, but he did say, "Even 14-year-old girls must recognize they cannot go on 8-day murder sprees … the time has come when she must face the consequences of her actions."
That day came on November 21, when Fugate was convicted and Judge Spencer sentenced her to life imprisonment.
The final act in this heartland tragedy was played out on June 25, 1959, when Starkweather strolled disinterestedly to his death in the electric chair. His former lover was paroled in 1976.
The notoriety that Charlie Starkweather craved so desperately has lived on, courtesy of two Hollywood movies, Badlands and Natural Born Killers, both of which are loosely based on the events of that mad January in Nebraska.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Allen, William. Starkweather. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
Beaver, Ninette, R.K. Ripley and Patrick Trese. Caril. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1974.
O'Donnell, Jeff. Starkweather. Lincoln, Ne.: Lee, 1993.
Reinhardt, James. The Murderous Trail of Charles Starkweather. Springfield, Ohio: Thomas, 1960.