Friday, October 26, 2018

Justice For All

The midterm elections are here and voters are heading to the polls. But Sylvia Likens won’t be among them. When Sylvia was 16, her parents -- itinerant carnival workers -- left her and her younger sister Jenny (crippled by polio) in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, a woman with seven children of her own to look after. For $20 a week, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time; as it turns out, it was one of the worst decisions any parents have ever made.

Sylvia and Jenny joined Baniszewski’s children: Paula, 17; Stephanie, 15; John,12; Marie, 11; Shirley,10; James, 8; and baby Dennis. The technical term to describe Sylvia is “a sick fuck.” Perhaps a more apt description would be “the most evil woman in history.” If there’s anyone else who comes close to vying for that title, I’m unaware of her. And if there truly is such a thing as a “bad seed,” then Baniszewski had sown an entire garden within her household.

Whenever the weekly $20 support payment arrived late, Baniszewski took it out on Sylvia and Jenny, paddling their bare buttocks. But eventually Baniszewski targeted her abuse solely on Sylvia. Baniszewski accused Sylvia of being pregnant (she wasn’t; she was a virgin) and kicked her in the genitals. Later, she encouraged her older children to beat Sylvia routinely and repeatedly push her down the stairs... For fun. She force-fed Sylvia a hot dog loaded with condiments, and when Sylvia threw up, forced the young girl to eat her own vomit.

Paula’s boyfriend, Coy Hubbard, 15, later joined the Baniszewski children in their routine beatings of Sylvia. He would even frequently bring his friends to the Baniszewski home where, with Baniszewski’s encouragement, Sylvia would be beaten; forced to eat feces and drink urine; and used as a practice dummy in violent judo sessions. During these assaults, Sylvia’s body was cut multiple times, she was burned with cigarettes more than 100 times, and her genitals were mutilated. Sylvia was forced to strip naked in the living room and insert an empty Coca-Cola bottle into her vagina to entertain the Baniszewski children and their friends.

Baniszewski forced Jenny to beat her own sister, threatening to beat her if she didn’t. Paula beat Sylvia’s face so hard that she broke her wrist but that didn’t stop her from later using her plaster cast to bludgeon Sylvia. Baniszewski burned Sylvia’s fingers with matches and frequently whipped her. Baniszewski and her children routinely bound Sylvia’s wrists and ankles and placed her in a bathtub filled with scalding hot water, rubbing salt into her wounds afterwards. You may not wish to read further, but you should because there’s a reason I’m telling you this. All you have to do is sit back and read a few paragraphs; 16-year-old Sylvia had to endure this. Repeatedly.

Sometimes Baniszewski would force Sylvia to eat her own feces and urine, as well as that from her infant son’s diaper. Baniszewski charged certain neighborhood children a nickel each to visit her basement and see the naked Sylvia on display, and to take turns tying, beating, burning, and mutilating her. Sylvia was constantly kept naked and often deprived of food and water as she became a prisoner in the Baniszewski home. Once, after forcing Sylvia to masturbate in front of her children, Baniszewski used a heated needle to carve the words “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” on Sylvia’s body. One of the neighborhood children in attendance, Richard Hobbs, 15, finished the job aided by 10-year-old Shirley Baniszewski and a nearby hot iron poker. Baniszewski taunted Sylvia telling her no man would ever want her after that.

Baniszewski forced Sylvia to write a note claiming she planned to run away; in reality, Baniszewski was plotting to have her eldest children dump Sylvia’s beaten body in a nearby forest and leave her to die. Sylvia overheard the plan and tried to escape. Her desperate effort failed. Baniszewski and Hubbard beat her into unconsciousness with a curtain rod and a broomstick. Sylvia regained consciousness and tried to leave the basement but collapsed. Baniszewski stomped on her head, crushing it. Brain hemorrhage, shock, and malnutrition were listed as the causes of Sylvia Liken’s death. She died on October 26, 1965 at the age of 16. She would have been 69 this year. Sylvia never had a Sweet 16 party, nor did she ever have the chance to vote in an election.

Sylvia’s story was used as the basis for several books and movies, including The Girl Next Door and Let’s Go Play at the Adams.’ I read the latter when it was first published being then only a few years older than Sylvia when she died. It was an exceptionally well-written novel because the author, Mendal W. Johnson, had the uncanny ability to place the reader inside the minds and motivations of the young torturers, and yet reading it was nonetheless a disturbing experience, the literary version of snuff film. Like a train wreck, you can’t look away and you can’t forget what you’ve seen. Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door was made into a movie with brilliant spot-on casting which, while lacking the depth of characterization of Johnson’s novel, nonetheless portrayed the actual crime more accurately than Johnson’s earlier novel. Yet in either fictionalized account, the reader or viewer is left with some slight satisfaction as the police arrive, too late to save poor Sylvia, but to see that justice is done to Gertrude Baniszewski, her children, and the neighborhood kids who had participated in the abuse.

But was justice done? When the last reel of the movie plays and the last page of the book is turned, Sylvia Liken’s story may have ended but what of those who tortured and murdered her? The injury-to-person charges against the younger children were dismissed. The two 15-year-olds – Coy Hubbard and Richard Hobbs – along with 12-year-old John Baniszewski, Jr. served a whopping two years in reform school. That’s half the time 16-year-old Sylvia might have spent in college, had she lived. John went on to become a deacon in his church. Paula pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was released from prison three years later; she subsequently worked as an aide to a school counselor for 14 years. Stephanie turned state’s evidence and the charges against her were dismissed; she became a schoolteacher. Gertrude Baniszewski was sentenced to life in prison… And paroled in 1985. Yes, everyone involved served little or no time in prison and some ended up in positions involving daily contact with children. Despite having been called “the single worst crime perpetrated against an individual in Indiana’s history” and spawning fictionalized movies and novels that read like the Cinderella story as told by the Marquis de Sade, there was no justice for the deceased victim or her family. Society and the law place the focus on the rights of the defendant, not on those of the victims.

On October 26, 2018 (and for several days thereafter) – 53 years to the day Sylvia Likens was murdered – Florida voters will have the opportunity to pass Amendment 6 which “would provide crime victims, their families, and their lawful representatives with specific rights, including a right to due process and to be treated with fairness and respect; a right to be free from intimidation, harassment, and abuse; a right to have the victim's welfare considered when setting bail; a right to proceedings free from unreasonable delay, among others.” It comes a half-century too late for Sylvia’s family – Jenny Likens after learning of Gertrude’s Baniszewski death from cancer, was quoted as saying, “We wanted her to get the electric chair” – but it may allow future victims and their families to have some input into the ultimate fate of those evil perpetrators of unspeakable acts society is too frequently willing to forgive and forget.

Florida voters should pass Amendment 6; citizens of other states that don’t already have a similar law should lobby their respective legislatures for one to be enacted or at least placed on the ballot. As a society we should always try to prevent horrific crimes but in those instances where we cannot, we must ensure justice prevails for the survivors. I think Sylvia would approve of that.

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