Aileen Wuornos - The Trial

The Case of Aileen Wournos


The Trial

In Florida a defendant convicted of murder can be punished by death if the murder is found to have been committed under certain circumstances listed in the Florida Penal Code, such as the murder of a police officer or firefighter, that the defendant murdered two or more victims, that the defendant committed a murder for hire, or that the murder was intentionally committed in the course of a kidnapping, burglary, robbery, aggravated rape or other statutorily specified felony. The subclass of murders falling into these categories is called "capital murder."

Wuornos was charged with the first-degree murder of Richard Mallory, armed robbery with a firearm or deadly weapon, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Prosecutors argued Wuornos qualified for the death penalty based on the charge of murder committed in the course of a robbery. (This was the only murder charge against Wuornos that went to trial. The other murder charges ended with "guilty" or "no contest" pleas, and are discussed in The Post-Trial Period.)

Capital trials are different in several ways from murder trials in which the defendant is not eligible for the death penalty. First, jury selection in capital cases requires that prospective jurors be "death qualified" (questioned about their ability to consider both aggravating and mitigating evidence and to render a death sentence in an appropriate case). Only jurors who are willing to consider sentencing someone to death may be selected. After the jury is chosen, the government has the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and offers evidence to convince the jury the defendant committed the offense. The defendant can offer evidence to rebut the prosecution’s evidence or to establish innocence, but has no burden of proof and is presumed innocent until proven otherwise.  

Wuornos’s capital trial for the murder of Richard Mallory began on January 13, 1992.

The Defense Attorney

Wuornos’ case was tried in Volusia County, Florida. Tricia Jenkins, Chief Assistant Public Defender of the Fifth Judicial Circuit, represented Wuornos at her trial. Wuornos stood trial only once, as she pled no contest or guilty to the subsequent murder charges. Private Attorney Steven Glazer represented her following the first trial and arranged those pleas of no contest or guilty.

The Prosecuting Attorney

The District Attorney at the time of Aileen Wuornos’ trial was State’s Attorney John Tanner. Judge Uriel Blount came out of retirement specifically to try the Wuornos case.

Trial: Guilt/Innocence Phase

The Prosecution’s Case

Prosecutors based their case mainly on the videotaped confession Aileen Wuornos gave to detectives during interrogation. The prosecution was able to introduce evidence related to Wuornos’ other murder charges based on a Florida law known as the Williams Rule, which allows evidence related to collateral crimes to be admitted if it helps to show motive, intent, knowledge, modus operandi, or lack of mistake.

Prosecutors dismissed Wuornos' initial claims that all 7 murders were in self-defense by pointing out that Wuornos’ story varied with each subsequent telling. In the earliest confession to  officers Wuornos said Mallory picked her up while she was hitchhiking and they later went into a secluded wooded area to engage in an act of prostitution. She and Mallory then began arguing. Wuornos said she felt Mallory was going to "roll her" (take her money) and rape her. She grabbed a bag in which she kept a gun, and the two began struggling over the bag. Wuornos prevailed, pointed the gun at Mallory, and said: "You son of a bitch, I knew you were going to rape me," to which Mallory responded: "No, I wasn't. No, I wasn't."

At this point Wuornos shot Mallory at least once while he still was sitting behind the steering wheel. Mallory crawled out of the driver's side and shut the car door. Wuornos said she ran around to the front of the car and shot Mallory again, causing him to fall to the ground. While he was lying there, Wuornos shot him twice more, went through his pockets, concealed the body beneath a piece of rug, and drove off in his car.

Wuornos also told law officers she had given Tyria Moore inconsistent versions about what happened. In one, Wuornos told Moore she had found a dead body hidden under a scrap of rug in the woods, but in another, she confessed to the killing.

In her initial taped confession, Wuornos never mentioned that Richard Mallory had raped her. During the confession it appeared Wuornos was not focused on clearing herself so much as clearing her lover, Moore. Moore had cooperated with police to convince Wuornos that Moore was going to be prosecuted unless Wuornos fully cooperated. Many believed Wuornos appeared confident and not at all upset during her confession. She made easy conversation with her interrogators and repeatedly told her public defender to be quiet. She said, “I took a life…I am willing to give up my life because I killed people…I deserve to die.”

The Defense Case

The defense argued Wuornos' statements in the videotaped confession were obtained involuntarily and in violation of her right to due process. Despite the fact she was advised of her Miranda rights and provided with a public defender who advised her not to make any lengthy statements, law enforcement’s exploitation of her relationship with Moore in obtaining the confession so impaired her mental state and level of functioning that she did not have a rational understanding of her rights and the advice of counsel. The trial court rejected this argument and denied the defense motion to suppress the videotaped confession. Moreover, the videotaped confession had already been leaked to the media, further influencing the public’s perception of Wuornos.

During later interviews with police, Wuornos went into detail about her self-defense claim. She explained she had offered to perform an act of prostitution with Mallory and he drove to an isolated area where the two drank, smoked marijuana, and talked for about five hours. Wuornos described herself as "drunk royal." Around 5 a.m., Wuornos disrobed to perform the act of prostitution. She asked Mallory to remove his clothes, but he said he wanted only to unzip his pants and didn't have enough money to pay her fee. Wuornos went to retrieve her clothes, but Mallory whipped a cord around her neck, threatened to kill her "like the other sluts I've done," and tied her hands to the steering wheel.

According to Wuornos's later version, Mallory violently raped her vaginally and anally, and took pleasure from her cries of pain. Mallory eventually untied her and told her to lie down. Believing he intended to kill her, she began to struggle. Mallory told her, "You're dead, bitch. You're dead." At this point Wuornos found her purse and removed her gun. Mallory grabbed her hand, and the two began fighting for the gun. Wuornos prevailed and shot Mallory. Mallory kept coming at her, despite her warnings, so she shot him twice more.

Against her attorneys’ wishes, Wuornos testified at trial. A defendant has a constitutional right not to testify, and the prosecution could not call her to the stand. However, once the defendant testifies, any refusal to answer questions can be held against her by the court and jury.

During her testimony she repeated her claim of self-defense. During cross-examination she became agitated and angry. Her attorneys repeatedly advised her not to answer questions, and she invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination twenty-five times. She was the only defense witness.

Wuornos’ defense also raised an issue that soon after her arrest, three detectives on the case, as well as Tyria Moore, talked to the media to sell their story. Some people suspected such deals influenced the witnesses to exaggerate their stories to more lucrative offers.

The Verdict

The jury found Wuornos guilty on all counts, including first-degree murder and armed robbery, after less than two hours of deliberation. An angry Wuornos shouted, “Sons of bitches! I was raped! I hope you get raped. Scumbags of America!” This outburst likely was fresh in the juror's minds as they began the sentencing phase the next day.

The Trial: Penalty Phase

After Aileen Wuornos was found guilty of the murder of Richard Mallory, a penalty trial was held before the same jury to determine whether she would be sentenced to death or life in prison. In most states, at this penalty trial, the jury chooses between death and life imprisonment by deciding whether the case involves certain statutorily specified “aggravating circumstances” (facts that make the crime more serious or the defendant more deserving of death), any “mitigating circumstances” (facts that extenuate the crime or make the defendant less culpable), and then whether the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating circumstances. The penalty phase of Aileen Wuornos’ trial began January 28, 1992.

Reasons For Sentencing Wuornos to Death

The State’s expert psychologist, Dr. Bernard, testified that Aileen Wuornos suffered from both borderline personality disorder as well as antisocial personality disorder. Although he agreed with other experts that Wuornos experienced impaired capacity and mental disturbance at the time of the crime, he concluded the impairment was not substantial and the disturbance was not extreme. He also agreed there was evidence of nonstatutory mitigating evidence, such as Wuornos’ mental problems, alcoholism, disturbance, and genetic or environment deficits.

In response to the introduction of evidence of Wuornos’ difficult childhood and upbringing, the State called two witnesses from her childhood: Lori Grody, Wuornos’ biological aunt and stepsister, and Barry Wuornos, her biological uncle and stepbrother.

Barry Wuornos testified Wuornos’ grandfather “laid down rules” and was someone to look up to. Although he had never seen his father beat Aileen, she sometimes was spanked, and when she was 10 the discipline became more “tight.” Barry testified that Aileen’s biological father, who committed suicide while in prison for rape and kidnapping, was abusive and “a criminal-type.”

Reasons for Sparing Wuornos's Life

In the penalty phase the defense introduced evidence about Wuornos' background. Her teenage parents separated months before she was born. Her father, Leo Pittman, moved on to serve time in Kansas and Michigan mental hospitals and later committed suicide in prison where he was serving time for child molestation and kidnapping. Aileen's teenage mother, Diane Wuornos, described her and her older brother Keith as crying, unhappy babies. Diane's troubled parents adopted Aileen an Keith after she abandoned them. Wuornos' life with her grandparents was physically and verbally abusive. At 6, she suffered facial burns and scarring when she and Keith set fires with lighter fluid.

During junior high, Wuornos began exhibiting hearing loss, vision problems, and trouble in school. Her IQ was established at 81, in the low dull-normal range. (An IQ at or below 70 is generally accepted as indicating mental retardation. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002, the mentally retarded cannot be sentenced to death). School officials urged that Wuornos receive counseling and tried to improve her behavior by administering a mild tranquilizer. At about 14, Wuornos was raped by her grandfather’s adult friend. She waited six months before revealing she was pregnant, for which her grandparents blamed her. Her grandfather later sent her away and forced her to give up the child for adoption.

After her grandmother died, her alcoholic grandfather threatened to kill her and her brother if they weren't removed from his house. At age 15 she became a ward of the court. She soon dropped out of school and began engaging in prostitution, as well as alcohol and drug abuse. Her brother died of cancer at 21, and her grandfather committed suicide.

Three defense psychologists concluded Wuornos suffered from borderline personality disorder at the time of her crime, resulting in extreme mental or emotional disturbance. They said her ability to conform her conduct to the law was substantially impaired, and she exhibited evidence of brain damage. One testified her inconsistent confessions should not be considered "lying" or "changing stories” in a subjective sense because of her borderline personality disorder. The defense attempted to portray her as a woman who had lived a horrible life of victimization and violence, with little help from anyone, and who later lashed out at one of her victimizers.

Defense attorney Jenkins referred to her client as “a damaged, primitive child” and pleaded with the jury to spare Wuornos’ life.

The Jury's Penalty Recommendation

The jury recommended the death sentence by a vote of 12 to 0, concluding that 5 aggravating circumstances, and only one mitigating factor, were present in Wuornos’ case.

The 5 aggravating circumstances found were:

1. Wuornos had a previous felony conviction involving the use or threat of violence.
2. Murder was committed during the commission of a robbery
3. Murder was committed in order to avoid arrest
4. Murder was heinous, atrocious, or cruel
5. Murder was cold, calculated and premeditated.

The trial jury found one mitigating factor:

Aileen Wuornos suffered from borderline personality disorder.

The jury decided that despite her psychological difficulties, Wuornos knew the difference between right and wrong.

The judge found the following non-statutory mitigators: (1) Wuornos suffered antisocial and borderline personality disorders; (2) she may have been physically abused as a child; (3) her natural father and grandfather committed suicide; (4) her grandmother died an alcoholic; and (5) her mother abandoned her as an infant. The judge followed the jury’s recommendation of death and sentenced Wuornos to the electric chair on January 31, 1992.