What if a teen killer was actually a victim?

The name Caril Ann Fugate might not ring a bell, but she probably lives somewhere in the recesses of your mind. Fugate was one half of a teenage couple who went on a killing spree in 1958, tearing across Nebraska and Wyoming and claiming the lives of 11 victims, including Fugate’s mother, stepfather, and younger half-sister. The American public was greatly amused by the story, and became a meme before there were memes. If it weren’t for Fugate, who was 14, and Charles Starkweather, an 18-year-old high school dropout who cultivated a James Dean-ish mien, there probably wouldn’t have been any Badlands or Natural Born Killers. The title track of Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album, Nebraska, is sung from Starkweather’s perspective.

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Short and barely 5ft 5in, Starkweather was every inch the ruthless rebel with his black motorcycle jacket and cigarette that was a staple in his school. With his white expression, Fugate was harder to read, even after Starkweather’s execution. Fugate was sentenced to life in prison, and images of her behind bars evoke Antonioni’s heroine: distant, troubled, remorseless.

A shocking new version of Fugate emerges in Showtime’s four-part docuseries The 12th Victim, which re-examines their legacy and exposes the holes in the story. Using archival footage and interviews with a parade of experts, the series takes its time in recreating the story in America where the residents of Lincoln, Nebraska, pushed furniture against their doors for fear of encountering murderers in the teenager. Eventually, the project slips out of the familiar crime scene and breaks new ground. What if Fugate wasn’t the willing accomplice? What if she was a slave, and a victim herself?

“It’s just a crime,” Nicola B Marsh, series director, tells the Guardian. “It’s about obedience and guilt.” Marsh spent most of her career working as a cinematographer (including the Oscar winner 20 Feet From Stardom). None of the works she directed, including the TV series Song Exploder and a documentary about transgender figure skater Leo Baker, focused on true crime, which may explain her unorthodox and feminist approach in relation to this project.

Over the year and a half that Marsh researched and shot the series, the story of two ruthless and passionate teenagers fell apart. What emerged was a more complex portrait: a boy suffering a mental breakdown, and a 14-year-old girl doing her best to protect the people she loved – and to protect herself. Fugate recently broke up with Starkweather when he showed up at the door of her family’s home. He told her to do as he said, or he would kill her family. But later, according to Fugate, she found out that he had already murdered them. “Even as a 14-year-old, I think the reaction is: I have to lower the temperature. I had to get his heart rate down,” says Marsh. “If someone you’re really close to has a psychotic break, you might not really push back on them very quickly, because you’re sure you’ll be able to stabilize the situation and things will be going towards. be okay.”

While the Showtime series evokes the true crime frenzy that dominates podcasts and documentaries, it takes a meta approach to its investigation. As well as looking at what really happened to Fugate, and the reasons she stayed by Starkweather’s side, it examines the usual motivation to portray the duo as a pair of violent and passionate lovebirds. “It’s not a good story except that they are lovers committed to individualism and freedom,” says Jean Munley, author of The Rise of True Crime, in an interview. “Nobody wants to know about a 14-year-old girl being raped and forced to take part in a killing spree.”

The 12th Victim includes clips of films that took inspiration from the Starkweather story: Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands, Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers. Absent from the series are many of the crime scene photographs, images that show the horrific and psychosexual nature of the murders. “I felt strong and Liza [Ward, the novelist granddaughter of two of Starkweather’s victims] he felt strongly that it is extremely traumatic for the relatives of those who were murdered because of the crime scene photo that was the most famous photo of that person,” says Marsh.

Fugate was paroled in 1976 and relocated to a small Michigan town, where she worked in a hospital and after hours as a nanny. Couldn’t really start. Her reputation hung over her like a shadow, and after years of living with trauma, she decided to tell the world what really happened.

It is not until the fourth and final episode that the show enters into its questioning of the prevailing story and presents a different version. A softer and more relaxed Fugate appears in home video footage of a surprise birthday party attended by a cast of teddy bears and the two children she cares for and who clearly love her. She appears on the TV program Lie Detector, and dissolves into sobs when the host, F Lee Bailey, informs her that she passed the test.

Linda Battisti, a longtime true crime lawyer and former Justice Department trial lawyer, was a key sympathizer. She read Fugate’s trial transcripts at the local library, and thought the facts in Fugate’s confession did not match. “I couldn’t help but think the prosecutors knew she was innocent,” she says. “The idea that they went ahead with it was appalling. But I think they thought they could get away with it because she’s a total white trash girl.”

Battisti eventually quit her job and spent 12 years researching the Nebraska murders for Twelfth Victim, the book she co-wrote on which the series is based. Battisti, who appears in the series as a talking head, hopes the show will raise awareness, and that Fugate could receive a pardon. Fugate, 79, now lives in Ohio and says her main goal is to be buried next to her mother when she dies. “People don’t really understand that I also lost my family,” she says.

“We know a lot more about the adolescent brain today than anyone did then,” says Battisti. “If I was a 14-year-old girl and someone said, ‘I’m going to kill your parents if you don’t do everything I say,’ I would believe them to save my family.”

The messiness of the Fugate affair still makes Marsh very happy. “There were probably moments where she could have escaped and she could have told someone, and she didn’t,” says the director. “But when you look at Caril’s story and put yourself in her shoes, I think a lot of people would have done what she did.”

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