The 12th Victim is ostensibly a true crime documentary but it’s so much more. In four episodes, it endeavors to set the record straight about Caril Ann Fugate’s role in Charles Starkweather’s 1958 Nebraska murder spree.
The story is encrusted with 64 years of popular culture. There have been thinly fictionalized movies inspired by the case such as Badlands, Natural Born Killers, and Wild At Heart made by two fine directors-Terence Malick and David Lynch-and the dread Oliver Stone but none of them got it right. Stone, of course, is incapable of getting anything right. He seems to spend most of his time cozying up to dictators. Did the world really need The Putin Interviews?
Enough of my antipathy for Oliver Stone. Back to Caril Fugate’s story.
The Caril character in the Stone and Lynch films was a boilerplate femme fatale. Nothing could be further from the truth: Caril Ann Fugate was 14 years old when the events that defined her life transpired. 14 years old.
Fugate was convicted of second degree murder in a trial at which Starkweather testified and lied like a Fox News host. Her age was largely disregarded as was her story: she was in thrall to the older Starkweather who was a James Dean wannabe. He threatened her family if she didn’t go along with him, so she did; not knowing that he had already murdered her parents and 2 year old sister. 2 years old.
Caril Ann Fugate was a kidnap victim who was transformed into a homicidal femme fatale in a spasm of sexism by the police, prosecution, and media. A reminder: she was 14 years old. She was a follower, not a leader.
I didn’t know much about the Starkweather-Fugate story before watching this fabulous Showtime docuseries. I’m a moderate on criminal justice issues; I understand the perspective of both prosecutors and defense lawyers. But The 12th Victim convinced me that a terrible wrong was done to Caril Ann Fugate.
We meet some interesting and likeable people along the way. There’s three generations of the MacArthur family; two of whom were Caril’s lawyers. There’s Liz Ward whose grandparents were murdered by Starkweather and came to believe that Fugate was a kidnap victim, not an accomplice.
There’s also Jackie Jackson who was the warden of the prison in which Fugate was incarcerated for 18 years. Luckily for Caril, Warden Jackson was a reformer who took a liking to the unjustly convicted murderer or murderess as they liked to say in the Fifties.
Then there’s Caril Ann Fugate herself. Her life was tinged with bitterness and sadness but somehow, she was always an optimist who believed that people could be convinced of her innocence. There’s something special and sincere about Fugate who suffered terrible loss and was then made to pay for her own loss.
In 1976, Fugate was paroled. She did her best to make a fresh start by leaving Nebraska where she was always seen as Bonnie to Starkweather’s Clyde. Her life remained challenging and difficult but she’s a kind person who made many friends over the years.
The series is based on the book by two of Caril Ann Fugate’s staunchest advocates: Linda Battisti and John Stevens Barry both of whom are lawyers. Barry led the charge on a failed attempt to obtain a pardon for Fugate in 2020.
In essence, The 12th Victim is an argument in defense of Caril Ann Fugate. It’s a well-directed and organized series with coherent chapters: Death, Judgement, Caged and Afterlife.
Dr. A and I recently watched another Showtime docuseries that attempted to transcend the true crime genre, Murder In Big Horn. It’s as passionate as The 12th Victim but suffers from repetition, disorganization, and an overly polemical style. It’s a pity because it addresses an important topic: the disappearance and murders of Native women on a Montana reservation.
Here’s the trailer for The 12th Victim:
Grading Time: I give this exceptional docuseries 4 stars and an Adrastos Grade of A-.
Many learned of the Starkweather murder spree from Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska. The last word goes to The Boss: