LINCOLN — The granddaughter of two of the 11 victims of Charles Starkweather’s murderous spree — an author who’s spent years studying the case — said Monday that Starkweather’s girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, deserves a pardon.
Liza Ward, whose grandparents S. Lauer and Clara Ward were killed in their Lincoln Country Club home in December 1958, said she’s convinced that the then-14-year-old Fugate was an unwilling hostage who was terrorized by Starkweather to accompany him and couldn’t escape.
“I could not find a single piece of evidence that she was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Ward, 44. “What I found, in fact, was that she was the victim of a system, an old boys network, that was fueled by the anger, fear and grief of the time.”
“It was just unbelievable to me, the miscarriage and mishandling of justice,” she said.
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Ward traveled from her home in Duxbury, Massachusetts, in hopes of testifying on Tuesday before the Nebraska Board of Pardons, which will consider giving a pardon to Fugate, 76.
Fugate, who maintained her innocence, was convicted of first-degree murder and felony murder in the commission of a robbery and spent 17 years in prison before being paroled in 1976.
But Lincoln lawyer John Stevens Berry, who is representing Fugate — who now goes by her married name, Caril Ann Clair — said she was wrongly convicted, based on the testimony of Starkweather, who changed his story and implicated her after being informed that she didn’t want to see him ever again.
“She was railroaded; she was innocent,” said Berry, who co-wrote a book about her case. “They should (give her a pardon) because it’s the right thing to do.”
Clair, who lives in Hillsdale, Michigan, is unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting, according to the attorney. But, Berry said, she’s excited and hopeful that she will gain a pardon, which is an official statement of forgiveness, not a declaration of innocence.
“She wants to meet her maker at peace,” Berry said.
In her application for a pardon, Clair said she was held captive by the 19-year-old Starkweather, who said he was holding her family hostage and threatened to kill them if she didn’t follow his orders. She later learned that he had already killed her mother, stepfather and baby half sister, whose bodies had been hidden by Starkweather.
But around Lincoln and Nebraska, there are plenty of people who believe that Clair was guilty and should still be in prison.
One former prosecutor, Paul Douglas, told The World-Herald before he died that Clair had plenty of chances to escape but didn’t. Plus, he said, she had to know that her family was dead because the pockets of a coat she was wearing when apprehended contained newspaper clippings about the slayings.
Berry said he’s “embarrassed” for his state when he hears people say Clair should have sat on Starkweather’s lap when he was executed in the electric chair in 1959.
Ward, who wrote a novel partly based on the Starkweather murders, said she began reconsidering her initial belief that Clair was involved in the murders after appearing on a 2016 true crime show. She said she’s read all the court transcripts generated by the case, visited every crime scene and even met Clair, compiling more than 1,000 pages of notes. It convinced her that Clair was, in fact, innocent.
Ward and Berry said it’s not clear whether the Pardons Board — which consists of Gov. Pete Ricketts, Attorney General Doug Peterson and Secretary of State Bob Evnen — will allow her to testify. So they made their pleas to a roomful of reporters Monday.
Ward said that even if people don’t believe that Clair was totally innocent, she still warrants a pardon for the sake of “redemption and grace.” Ward said her father, who was 14 when his parents were killed, and other members of her family support the granting of a pardon.
Ward said she believes that even her grandparents would want “the truth to be known.”
“There might still be something good that comes out of this horrible story,” she said. “I have a daughter, and I want to tell her that the world finally believed the story of a young girl.