Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens

The Torture Killers on Trial

Gertrude Baniszewski (authorities called her by her legal name upon learning she had not been legally married to Dennis Wright) was arrested for murder. So were Paula Baniszewski, Stephanie Baniszewski, John Baniszewski, Richard Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard. Younger juveniles Anna Siscoe, Judy Duke, Randy Lepper, and Mike Monroe were charged with "injury to person." Most of the youngsters readily admitted their actions but when asked for an explanation, deferred to their mother or, if unrelated, offered the excuse, "Gertie told me to."

The poverty stricken and chronically ill Mrs. Wright was hardly charismatic; she was neither hypnotist nor dominatrix but the minors apparently had faith that her "grown-up" status would protect them from the consequences of their actions. As it turned out, they would be appallingly successful in hiding behind her skirt.

The charges of injury to person were dropped against the younger juveniles. Stephanie Baniszewski's attorney got her a separate trial and later the murder charge against her was dropped as well.

Standing trial for first degree murder in Indiana's most sensational case ever were five people: one adult, Gertrude Baniszewski and four minors, Paula Baniszewski, John Baniszewski, Richard Hobbs, and Coy Hubbard. John had only recently turned thirteen.

Paula's time in court would be interrupted by a trip to the hospital to deliver the baby with whom both she and her mother had so adamantly insisted she was not pregnant. It was a girl. In a display of filial devotion, Paula named her child Gertrude.

The courtroom was jam packed with spectators every day. This was the worst single murder the state had ever known and the largest number of defendants it had ever tried at once. The prosecution was seeking the death penalty for all the accused and it was widely expected that, at least in Mrs. Baniszewski's case, they would get it. The death penalty in Indiana at the time was carried out by the electric chair.

Many years later, John Baniszewski was to tell a reporter that he actively enjoyed being on trial. He commented, "I took a kind of delight in it. What I really wanted was love but I took the attention instead."

The judge at the trial was Saul Rabb, a grizzled, balding, and bespectacled jurist known for his tart tongue. Representing Gertrude Baniszewski was William Erbecker, a respected, heavy-set attorney considered flamboyant and personable. George Rice, a Ph.D in psychology as well as a member of the bar, was Paula's lawyer. John's attorney, Forrest Bowman, was widely regarded as thorough and dedicated. All of these lawyers worked for their indigent clients free of charge. The only paid attorney, James G. Nedeff, had been appointed by the court to represent Richard Hobbs. Coy Hubbard was, at first represented by Joseph Quill. Quill quit after a week and Forrest Bowman assumed Hubbard's case as well as John Baniszewski's.

Prosecuting Attorney Leroy K. New
Prosecuting Attorney
Leroy K. New

The prosecution team was led by Leroy New, a tall, handsome forty-something fellow known for his skill in cross examination. Assisting him was deputy prosecutor Marjorie Wessner. Although women lawyers were still a rarity in those days, the thinking was that it was good to have a female on hand in cases involving women and child defendants and witnesses.

Much of the testimony was sensational and pathetic, often at the same time. Early witnesses included the shocked police officers who had encountered the hideously mutilated corpse of Sylvia Likens along with doctors who enumerated her extraordinary wounds. The star witness for the prosecution was Jenny Likens. She hobbled to the witness stand in a new dress and, in a voice sometimes firm, sometimes halting, and often choked with tears, detailed the horrors she and her sister had suffered. When Wessner gently asked her why she hadn't sought help, young Likens replied, "I was scared. Gertrude just kept beating me." Defense attorneys would pursue this point at length. Jenny's response was always the same: "Gertrude threatened me if I told anyone, I'd get the same treatment Sylvia was getting."

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