LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska's pardons board refused Tuesday to pardon the murder conviction of the ex-girlfriend of Charles Starkweather, the infamous killer who went on a rampage in the 1950s that was later immortalized in movies, books and two hit songs.
The board voted 3-0 to deny the application from Caril Ann Clair, even though some relatives of Starkweather's victims lobbied in her favor. The board is composed of Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, Attorney General Doug Peterson and Secretary of State Bob Evnen, all Republicans.
Clair, who was known as Caril Ann Fugate at the time, was 14 when Starkweather, then 19, went on a killing spree in 1957-58 that left 11 people dead in Nebraska and Wyoming, including her mother, stepfather and baby half-sister.
The murders stoked so much fear around Lincoln that law enforcement conducted a house-by-house search of the city and the governor contacted the Nebraska National Guard. It also formed a loose basis for the 1973 movie “Badlands,” with Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen, as well as other films. The killings were the subject of Bruce Springsteen's song “Nebraska,” and referenced in Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire.”
Clair spent 17 years in prison on a murder conviction before she was paroled in 1976. She has since married and lives in Michigan under the name Caril Ann Clair.
Starkweather was executed in 1959 at the age of 20.
Clair, now 76, wrote in her pardon application that the perception that she willingly joined Starkweather on a murder spree is “too much for me to bear anymore.”
“Receiving a pardon may somehow alleviate this terrible burden,” she wrote.
After the vote, Peterson said he denied the application because the purpose of the pardons board is to restore a felon's rights, and Clair's request was “much, much broader” than what board members could offer.
“That's not the role of the pardons board," he said.
But the vote infuriated some of Clair's allies, who were denied a chance to testify. Clair applied for a pardon once before, in 1996, and was rejected. This time, she had an unusual ally — the granddaughter of two of Starkweather’s victims.
Liza Ward, of Duxbury, Massachusetts, said she became convinced that Clair was innocent after researching the case and visiting all the sites where people were killed. Ward is the granddaughter of S. Lauer and Clara Ward, who were killed in their Lincoln home in December 1958.
“There are a lot of people who support her, and we're going to let her know that however we can," Ward said through tears after the board's vote. She said she started investigating the case to discover what had happened to her grandparents, and “the more I learned, the more I realized that something wasn't right.”
Clair's attorney, John S. Berry Sr., said his client sought clemency to bring her some closure in the case.
“She’s not after anything else other than to clear her name,” said Berry, who also co-wrote a book arguing that Clair’s conviction was a miscarriage of justice.
But Dave Ellis, a relative of another victim, said he was pleased with the board's decision. Ellis said he believes Clair killed his first cousin once removed, Carol King, because King's body was partially mutilated after Starkweather raped her. Ellis said he thinks Clair mutilated her out of “female rage.”
Ward said she could find no evidence of Clair’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and noted that Starkweather was the prosecution’s main witness against her, even though he had changed his story multiple times and was likely angry because Clair had told him she never wanted to see him again.
Ward said she believes Clair was a victim of Starkweather’s and that the public’s perception of her guilt is based on misinformation and hearsay about the case.
Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter: http://twitter.com/GrantSchulte