n February 1992, 17-year-old Donna Marie Wisener went on trial for the first-degree murder of her father. A year earlier she had shot her father six times inside their home in Smith County, Texas. Nine months later in Missouri, 20-year-old Stacey Lannert went on trial charged with the first-degree murder of her father. Two years earlier she had shot him twice while he was asleep on the couch in his home in St. John, Missouri.
In 1993, brothers Lyle and Eric Menendez faced trials for the murder of both their parents. Aged 21 and 18 years old at the time of the murders, their parents were shot multiple times in their Beverly Hills mansion three years earlier. In 1994, 15-year-old Jacob Ind went on trial for the murder of his mother and stepfather after they were shot and stabbed to death in Woodland Park, Colorado in December 1992.
In all of these cases, the defendants told the story of years of sexual abuse taking place behind closed doors and claimed their actions were carried out in self-defense. The argument of self-defense requires a number of elements to be viable; it must be proven a defendant was confronted with an unprovoked attack, there was an imminent threat of injury or death, the use of deadly force was appropriate and reasonable under the circumstances and, that reasonable fear of harm was present unless the defendant defended themselves with the use of force.
Recent statistics indicate the rate of parricide, the murder of both parents, per year. For Australia, it is around 14 cases, the United Kingdom 9 cases and Canada 29 cases on average.
Dr. Kathleen Heide, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida has written extensively on juvenile homicide and parricide. She has found through her research that 1 in 5 parricides are carried out by adolescents under the age of 18-years-old.
In her books “Why Kids Kill Parents: Child Abuse and Adolescent Homicide” and “Understanding Parricide”, she talks of the severely abused parricide offender, describing long-term abuse within the home as the most common reason an adolescent murders their parents, killing in desperation after reaching a point where they can no longer deal with their situation.
Patricide After Sexual Abuse
The issue present in many cases of patricide, the murder of one’s own father, with a history of sexual abuse is often the adolescents’ attack on their father occurred out with a time of imminent threat. Often the father is asleep or with their back turned at the time they were killed leaving the teenager who killed them struggling to argue that they acted in self-defense at the time. In some American states, a history of abuse by the father or both parents is permitted to be introduced as evidence as part of a defense, in others, this lack of imminent threat means such a defense cannot be mounted.
Donna Marie Wisener was acquitted of murder after a new Texas law allowed for a history of abuse within the household to be presented as evidence in her defense. Stacey Lannert was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole after the judge ruled with no imminent threat to her life at the time of the murder, she could not present an argument of self-defense to the jury, although she was allowed to give evidence on the sexual abuse history. The Menendez Brothers were both convicted of double-murder and sentenced to life. Many have been skeptical of their abuse claims, being more persuaded by the lure of the family’s fortune as a motive for the murders. Jacob Ind was also convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and given a mandatory sentence of life without parole, avoiding the death penalty only because he was a juvenile. His older brother testified to the jury in court to the abuse both had suffered at the hands of their father.
The jury in a murder trial involving patricide with a teenager as the defendant can only make their decision on the criminal responsibility of that teen based on the information presented to them. This includes the evidence in the case; forensics, crime scene photos, witness and expert testimony and, the opening and closing statements of both the defence and the prosecution, in which both will attempt to manipulate jury members by appealing to their emotions, their sense of justice and their human nature in order to achieve the verdict outcome they want.
A research study by Tamara Haegerich and Bette Bottoms of the University of Illinois in Chicago has examined the issue of juror empathy towards defendants on trial for the murder of their father due to sexual abuse. The researchers were interested in the effects of empathy for the teenager, the effects of defendant gender and of juror gender, hypothesising all would have influence on the jurors in whether they believed the teenager on the allegations of abuse, how responsible they felt the teenager was for the crime and in how they reached their final verdict.
“Our study is the first to examine the effects of situationally induced empathy for a child sexual abuse victim.”
While the complex behaviors of jurors and the influences on their decision-making cannot be surmised through one single research study, the results provide interesting reading.
Using 102 undergraduate students from the University of Illinois aged between 18 and 42 years in a mock-trial experiment, half were placed in an ‘empathy-induction’ condition where they were given extra information and instructions to put themselves in the position of the defendant on trial and imagine how they would feel under the circumstances of when the offense took place. The remaining 50% of participants were in the ‘control-condition’ where they received no such instruction.
Empathy is different from sympathy. To empathize with someone is to be able to see a situation from their perspective, whereas to sympathize with someone is to feel concern for them rather than feel similar emotions to them by imagining themselves in the same situation. Whether juror members are empathetic towards a defendant or sympathetic can produce different outcomes and verdicts.
This study, published in 2000 in the Journal of Law and Human Behaviour, focused specifically on empathy and ‘state empathy’, an emotional state “prompted or elicited by a stimulus in the social environment”. If a defense attorney can promote empathy from jurors towards their defendant, this can go a long way toward encouraging a more favorable verdict to the defense. Those who feel empathy for another are less likely to blame them and more likely to blame the situation that person found themselves in instead as the cause of that behavior.
In the study design, all participants read a transcript of a real trial of a father murdered by his 15-year-old child after alleged sexual abuse, with half reading additional direction encouraging empathy for the defendant. In the mock trial, the prosecution presented a case of a spoilt difficult child who shot their father while they were sleeping for money and out of simple hatred. The defense presented a case of an abused child who the father was attempting to rape and kill at the time of the murder and the child killed the father in self-defense.
Participants were then asked for their decisions on the case; guilty or not guilty, how responsible was the defendant for the murder, how credible was the defendant and how much, if at all, did the jurors believe the sexual abuse allegations and how much did they feel the abuse should be a mitigating factor in the case. They also indicated their own levels of empathy, sympathy, and similarity to the defendant.
“Jurors can feel empathic and less punitive toward a defendant without necessarily believing the defendant more or less.”
This study found that mock-jurors in the empathy condition found the defendant less criminally responsible compared to jurors in the control condition. Female jurors were found to be more likely to believe the sexual abuse took place than male jurors were; equally, jurors in the empathy condition were more likely to believe the sexual abuse should be taken as a mitigating factor in the murder compared to jurors in the control condition.
Male jurors showed significantly more empathy towards a male defendant than for a female defendant, whereas women showed no difference with regards to the gender of the defendant. No differences were found in the two groups in the sympathy they had for the defendant, highlighting empathy and sympathy can be experienced distinctly from each other.
30% of mock-jurors in the empathy condition gave not guilty verdict due to the self-defense argument, indicating they made this decision because of the defendants’ past history of abuse.
“Jurors may have doubted the defendant’s claim of being in imminent danger at the moment of the shooting, but believed that the past abuse was a sufficient excuse for killing the father.”
When a history of sexual abuse is presented to a jury within a patricide trial, levels of empathy from jury members for the defendant can differ but can have a significant impact on their decision-making process with regards to criminal responsibility and resulting punishment.
During jury selection, a good attorney for both the defense and prosecution is looking to select the individual jurors they feel are most likely to respond well and in their favor. For the defense when presenting a history of abuse, inducing empathy through the course of the trial in jurors will be a key tactic to their strategy.
The Stacey Lannert Case
Stacey Lannert was 18-years-old when she shot her father to death. Living intermittently with her mother, in St. John, Missouri on 4 July 1990 she had returned to her father’s home with her younger sister to rescue a puppy they feared their father would harm. Tom Lannert was a heavy drinker and Stacey Lannert testified in her trial he began sexually abusing her at 8-years-old and raped her for the first time when she was 9-years-old. When she entered the house that night, Lannert picked up a rifle that was in the basement, she told police “I decided at that moment that I was going to do it, I was going to kill him.”
She went upstairs and found her father sleeping on the couch. Her first shot hit him in the shoulder. He woke, in pain and crying out, telling her to call an ambulance. After looking for the phone to call for help, she stated she thought “He didn’t deserve to live,” returning to the living room and shooting again. The second shot was at point-blank range to his head, killing him instantly.
The following day Lannert called the police and told them she had found her father dead on the sofa after coming home. Under questioning, she confessed she had shot him and was charged with first-degree murder.
At her trial, the prosecution claimed she had killed her father for money. In the weeks prior to the murder Stacey Lannert had been spending money on her father’s credit cards and asking friends to pose as her father over the telephone to fraudulently obtain more money. One such friend, Jason Fortune testified during her trial Lannert had told him if her father was to die she would inherit cash and had ‘fantasized about what she could buy with all the money’.
In a pre-trial hearing, a defense of mental disease or defect under the self-defense argument of ‘battered spouse syndrome’ was rejected, but evidence of her alleged abuse from her father was allowed to be presented to the jury. She told the court she had told people at the school of the sexual abuse by her father but no one had taken any action to stop it or protect her. She also testified on the details of the sexual abuse by her father from a young age. Experts who assessed Lannert agreed she showed signs of abuse.
The law generally requires a defendant to be in imminent danger of harm or death at the time of the murder for a self-defense argument. It was this issue and the fact Lannert shot her father a second time that led to her conviction. Jurors in her trial did seem to believe her claims of past sexual abuse but still returned a guilty verdict. There was a time-gap in between Lannert firing the first shot and her firing the second shot. For some jurors, this seems to have dismissed the concept of her being in immediate danger of her life and undermined her self-defense argument.
During the 18 years Stacey Lannert was incarcerated after her conviction concerns were raised that at her trial the jury were not told of the extent of the sexual abuse she had suffered at the hands of her father.
“It is deeply troubling that the jury was not completely informed of the scope of the abuse Lannert suffered, her fear, or her rage that her sister may also have been victimized by their father.” The United States Court of Appeals For the Eighth Circuit said after one appeal of her sentence in 2003. However, the court concluded the judge’s decision in the original trial not to allow this evidence to be presented to the jury was correct, citing that deadly force in self-defense can only be justifiably used when there was clear ‘necessity for the defender to kill in order to save himself from an immediate danger”
A new Missouri governor Matt Blunt did eventually commute her sentence in January 2009 saying he had reviewed the evidence and determined she had been abused and suffered extensively from her father. She was given a new sentence of 20 years making her eligible for release and was released from prison on 16 January 2009. Stacey Lannert now lives in St. Louis and has set up an organization Healing Sisters to help and support other victims of sexual abuse.
- Criminal Law Interactive (2015) 5.2 Self-Defense. University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing, eLearning Support Initiative.
- Haegerich, T.M., and Bottoms B.L. (2000) Empathy and Juror’s Decisions in Patricide Trials Involving Child Sexual Assault Allegations. Law and Human Behaviour, 24(4),pp421-48
- Heide, K.M. (2013) Understanding Parricide, Oxford University Press, ISBN: 978-0195176667.
- Helling, S (2017) Erik Menendez Speaks Out: ‘I’m Telling My Story to You Now for the First Time’. People Crime.
- Margolick, D (1992) When Child Kills Parent, It’s Sometimes to Survive. The New York Times.
- PBS Frontline (2007) When Kids Get Life. Profile Jacob Ind. PBS.org.
Guy, F. (2018, Jan 13) A Father’s Murder: Juror Empathy In Patricide Trials Involving Child Sexual Abuse. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from https://www.crimetraveller.org/2018/01/juror-empathy-patricide-trials-child-sexual-abuse/