Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Shawna Forde

Penalty Phase


Prosecutors listed three factors of the crime that justified a death sentence for Shawna Forde: multiple victims, the tender age of the murdered Brisenia Flores, and the financial motivation. If the jury could not unanimously agree to vote for death, Judge Leonardo would be required to sentence Forde to life in prison and decide whether she would be parole-eligible after 25 years.

Shawna Forde (left) in court
Shawna Forde (left) in court

Shawna Forde's defense attorneys Eric Larsen and Jill Thorp went on the offensive in the trial's final phase, describing Shawna Forde's deplorable upbringing in an attempt to win sympathy from a jury they hoped might spare their client's life. Forde's mother, Rena Caudle, had given birth to nine children by five different men; her first child was the result of an incestuous encounter with her stepfather. When Forde was born, Caudle had already fallen into a pattern of favoring her current boyfriend over her children. Forde had lived in seven different households by the age of 5. Forde's mitigation expert Margaret DiFrank told the jury that Forde had been molested by an adoptive father and an uncle, and that she had been beaten by a foster mother. DiFrank explained that this early abuse paved the way for Shawna's history of running away and her turning to thievery and prostitution.

Forde's defense team posited that Shawna's early childhood poverty and abandonment had led her to develop a narcissistic personality disorder. Neuropsychologist James Sullivan examined Shawna and testified that she suffered from mental deficits the doctor attributed to early trauma and a stroke she had suffered in her twenties. Sullivan estimated Forde's IQ at 86 but found that she greatly overestimated her own intellectual abilities. Sullivan said Forde's damaged brain made her unable to adjust to her environment and gave her delusions of grandeur: She had repeatedly lied about her personal history to come off as "a big operator with a lot of irons in the fire."

Prosecutors called Gina Gonzalez to the witness stand once again during the penalty phase to describe the horrors she had endured on May 30, 2009. "I went to bed that night not knowing my life would be changed forever," she told the court. Gonzalez broke down in tears recalling her inability to save her daughter Brisenia: "I wasn't able to do anything about it," she lamented, "I couldn't defend her." And she took a swipe at Forde: "I don't understand how someone could have that much hate in their heart," she sobbed.


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