Wednesday 15 August 2018

Our fascination with women who kill: A look at why female killers keep us hooked

Women killers like Catherine Nevin are rare, which partly explains why they fascinate us. Kim Bielenberg on why we find it especially hard to forgive women who commit violent crimes

Notorious: Catherine Nevin (left) arriving in court for her murder trial in April 2000. During the trial Justice Mella Carroll ordered a ban on the press commenting on Nevin’s appearance
Notorious: Catherine Nevin (left) arriving in court for her murder trial in April 2000. During the trial Justice Mella Carroll ordered a ban on the press commenting on Nevin’s appearance
Myra Hindley
Charlotte Mulhall
Amanda Knox

The case of murderer Catherine Nevin, who received a life sentence for murder in April 2000, shows how as a society we are intrigued by female killers.

Even before the first abortive murder trial of Nevin had started for the killing of her husband Tom in Jack White's pub in Co Wicklow in 1996, the case had become a topic that veered towards public obsession.

In the weeks before the murder trial began, an acquaintance in Wicklow teased Nevin that Hollywood had already cast Julia Roberts to play her role in a blockbuster movie.

"Huh," the middle-aged widow was reported as saying. "Sure, I'm much better-looking than she is."

On the day after she was convicted, the media accused Nevin of flagrant narcissism.

But it takes two to tango, and the media was only too happy to indulge Nevin's self-obsession.

Every detail of how she looked was reported during the trial. There were reports of the rainbow of nail polish, the unnatural suntan, the kooky teenage plait in her hair, the seamed black stockings, revelations of serial cosmetic surgery and a "wardrobe of Imelda Marcos dimensions".

Nevin was said to have turned up for her verdict, grinning in "a clinging black dress, slit to the thigh".

Lurid coverage

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Catherine Nevin. Picture: Collins
 

This type of coverage became so lurid that Justice Mella Carroll ordered a ban on the press commenting on Nevin's appearance.

Photos of Nevin's arrival to court were prohibited, as were observations about her hair, dress, jewellery, nail varnish, reading material or general demeanour.

As in many other murder cases involving women, the impulse to kill was subliminally linked with a voracious sexual appetite, as if the two traits are in some ways connected. Nevin's trial appeared to confirm the line in the Rudyard Kipling poem that the female of the species is deadlier than the male.

And that line was trotted out in the coverage of the lengthy trial.

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Catherine Nevin, who carried a red rose at the funeral of her husband

A rare phenomenon

But in truth, coldly calculating female killers become the topic of fascination because of their rarity, rather than any other factor.

The male of the species is of course much deadlier than the female.

Very few women in Ireland bump off their husbands or boyfriends, or indeed are convicted of murder, but cases of men killing their partners have become all too commonplace.

Figures published by the Department of Justice last year show that only 10 - or under 3pc - of the 352 prisoners serving life sentences were women.

A sizeable portion of the 342 men serving life sentences are those who have murdered women.

Figures released by Women's Aid show that a total of 209 women have been killed by men in Ireland between 1996 and 2016.

In 164 of the cases that came before the courts, 89 of the killers were a current or former intimate partner of the victim.

There are certain characteristics that cause a murder to become a sensation in Ireland.

It helps if the dramatis personae come from "Middle Ireland" and their backgrounds are what is termed "respectable". Also a killing is likely to attract more attention if there is an element of doubt or mystery.

But female murderers are always bound to attract more attention. Myra Hindley and Ian Brady collaborated in the notorious Moors murders of five children in and around Manchester in the 1960s.

A witch personified

But Hindley (below) always seemed to attract more attention than Brady as a witch personified - "the most evil woman in Britain".

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Myra Hindley

Most of the 300 or so male lifers in Ireland are hardly household names, but the small number of female killers seldom escape a high profile.

Among them is the notorious "scissor sister" Charlotte Mulhall (below), who is serving a life term at Dochas for the murder and chopping up of Farah Swaleh Noor in 2005. Her trial took place in 2006, and her sister Linda was convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter.

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Charlotte Mulhall

In 2016, Charlotte Mulhall was joined in the Dochas prison by 29-year-old Marta Herda, who was convicted of killing an admirer Csaba Orsos. The unusual method of killing inevitably added to the fascination of the case.

The Polish waitress from Arklow, Co Wicklow received a life term for the murder of Orsos. She was convicted of drowning him by driving her car off a pier with the driver's window open.

She was a good swimmer and knew that her passenger could not swim, when she drove her Volkswagen Passat through the crash barriers at South Quay, Arklow in March 2013.

The Central Criminal Court heard that she escaped through the driver's window at the harbour but her friend's body was found on a beach nearby later that day.

Another woman serving a life sentence for murder is Lithuanian-born nurse Greta Dudko, who received a life term in 2014 for murdering her mother, Anna Butautiene, on Christmas Eve, 2010.

Female murderers are more likely to cause a sensation, because they transgress the norms of their gender.

A certain level of aggression in men is expected and is even seen as a quality.

As the British author Katharine Quarmby has observed, women, by contrast, are seen by society as being hardwired to care and nurture, rather than to hurt and kill.

Foxy Knoxy

When they become killers, it challenges society's idea of what a woman should be, and the received idealised notions of the woman as the caregiving mother.

Inevitably, the enormity of their crimes is magnified.

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Amanda Knox

The case of Amanda Knox (above), a 20-year-old student from Washington State who was accused of murdering British student Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy is an outstanding example. Presented as a "young, attractive brunette", she was labelled Foxy Knoxy and was portrayed as a promiscuous and "enchanting witch" who was into kinky sex.

Knox was found guilty of Meredith's murder in 2009, but was ultimately acquitted in 2015.

She later said: "People love monsters. And so, when they get the chance, they want to see them.

"They want the reassurance of knowing who the bad people are, and it's not them."

Women may be less prone to murder, but that does not mean that they have some God-given role as innocent natural caregivers.

As Katharine Quarmby puts it: "Men are not always the offenders and women not always the victims."

She cites British crime figures showing over two million men had experienced domestic abuse by their partners.

Same-sex relationships involving women are no less violent than heterosexual ones, according to the figures.

Women are responsible for the majority of murders of infants in Britain, and between 10-20pc of sexual offences against children.

The criminal barrister Helena Kennedy acted as a lawyer for the murderer Myra Hindley and said in an interview that she felt it was right that Hindley was never released, given that Britain did not have the death penalty.

Kennedy also said that women were less likely to be forgiven for their crimes.

"We live by two sets of rules: the criminal justice system and the other set of rules."

This other set, she says, encompasses the sense that you have done something that runs counter to the rules of womanhood.

"We expect women to be better than men - there is that unspoken thing - that we are more shocked when women do terrible things. I feel it myself."

That probably sums up our attitude to Catherine Nevin.

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