Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 19 October 2016
They are not glamorous bank robbers. They are not ‘Bonnie and Clyde’. They are a teenage girl and her boyfriend, who are awaiting sentence for a brutal double murder in an English market town.
The killers were 14-years-old at the time of the ‘cold and calculated’ attack, in April this year. The boy, we are told, was encouraged by his girlfriend to stab a 49-year-old woman, Elizabeth Edwards, and her daughter Katie, aged 13, to death as they slept in their beds. The girl was convicted of murder after pleading guilty to manslaughter, while the boy admitted murder earlier in the trial
That is horrific enough to contemplate, without trite comparisons that get in the way of understanding this highly unusual case. But the ‘guilty’ verdict on the girl had barely come back when the sensational response began.
Some called them ‘evil’. Others compared the pair to outlaws and made much of the fact that the girl and her boyfriend took a bath after the murders, had sex and watched the vampire film Twilight. One report, in the Mirror, managed to get both references into a headline: ‘Teen “Twilight” killers who murdered a mum and daughter compared to Bonnie and Clyde’.
In fact, there are very few similarities between the two 14-year-olds and Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who died in a shoot-out with police in 1934. They were adults, members of a gang which committed crimes during the Great Depression, holding up shops and gas stations. There is little evidence that Parker killed anyone, but Barrow and other members of the gang shot police officers and members of the public who got in their way.
The comparison was made during the trial by an expert witness, forensic psychiatrist, Dr Philip Joseph, who mused: ‘Bonnie and Clyde…that sort of intense attraction, emotional closeness – them against the world. It’s that sort of thing that led on to this’.
He was right to highlight the toxic relationship between the teenagers but almost everything we ‘know’ about Bonnie and Clyde comes from a successful 1967 film, starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, which presented a highly romanticised version of their desperate lives and sordid deaths. Such comparisons do nothing to help us understand why two British children, living in a Lincolnshire town, would plot and carry out the brutal murders of a mother and daughter. They only serve to fuel our enduring fascination with young female killers; indeed, so much attention has been paid to the girl’s part in this horrific crime that the boy’s role is in danger of being overlooked.
We are more accustomed to thinking about girls as victims of crime, rather than perpetrators. A recent series of harrowing trials, involving men accused of sexually abusing underage teenagers in towns such as Rotherham, has driven that message home. But while it’s true that teen girls are more likely to be victims of violence, there are cases (albeit a relatively small number) where they are actively involved in crime. In cities with a gang problem, for instance, teenage girls are sometimes horribly abused and then used to draw other young women into the gang’s clutches.
Perversely, the expectation that girls are usually victims means that the rare exceptions are guaranteed the kind of sensational coverage we have just seen in the Spalding case. Describing a teenage girl as ‘evil’ tells us nothing about her; it is a distancing mechanism, employed to reassure the public that no one needs to think too hard about what happened before she committed such a terrible crime.
Even the fact that the girl watched a vampire film – one which is also hugely popular with teenagers who have never so much as dropped a piece of litter – has been used to suggest that she’s not quite human.
Such incidents, we are being asked to believe, simply defy understanding. This is almost never the case and the mythologising that follows is very damaging – disastrously so in some instances. A recent Netflix documentary showed how the investigation into the savage murder of a British student in Italy, Meredith Kercher, was derailed by the demonising of her American flatmate, Amanda Knox, who fought for years to clear her name after being paraded in the press as ‘Foxy Knoxy’.
Both the teenagers in the Spalding case had displayed disturbed behaviour before the double murder. In diaries, the girl described herself as an ‘emotional train wreck’. They appear to have hated themselves and adults, had suicidal thoughts and had initially planned to kill themselves after the murders.
That they ever met was a disaster. But so too was the lack of stable emotional attachment in their lives – a common factor in the backgrounds of young people who take part in extreme violence. But it’s far easier to attach labels than look at why no one spotted their problems or intervened.
It doesn’t excuse their horrific crimes, for which they are now paying the price. But calling them ‘Twilight murderers’ – almost fictionalising their actions – does nothing to help us make sense of the tragic events that have shaken an English market town to its core.