Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens

Drama in the Courtroom

Marie Baniszewski
Marie Baniszewski

To back up Gertrude's story, Marie Baniszewski was called to the stand. Only eleven years old, Marie was a lovely girl with dark blonde hair cut short and curly bangs over her forehead. She appeared in court in a blue pastel dress with eyelet sleeves. Her expression was understandably somber. Her eyes were blurred with tears as she got into the witness box. Tears streamed down her pale cheeks when Erbecker asked her why she was there. Marie replied, "I'm here to testify to see if my Mom killed Sylvia Likens."

Marie testified that she had seen her Mom hit Sylvia only "when she was bad." She went on to swear that she had never seen her mother kick the girl, burn her, or mistreat her in any other manner. Marie had seen other kids do all those things but Mom wasn't present; she was in bed sick.

The next day Marie was cross-examined by New. The elementary school aged child was tearful right from the start. Asked why by the prosecutor, she replied, believably enough, "I'm nervous!"

Marie repeated the denials of the previous day to the prosecutor, whose questions of this fragile witness were relatively low-key. Finally, he took her to the day Sylvia was branded on the stomach. As she had previously, Marie maintained that it was her ten-year-old sister Shirley who had lit the matches for the needle and that her Mom was in bed sick, knowing nothing of the mutilation.

New continued questioning Marie until finally the sobbing child shouted, "Oh, God, help me!" Then, Perry Mason-like, the witness for the defense turned into one for the prosecution. Marie had heated the needle; her mother had been there and started the "tattoo." She had seen Mom burn Sylvia and beat her. She had heard her mother order Sylvia down to the basement.

Defense Attorney William Erbecker
Defense Attorney
William Erbecker

In his summation to the jury, Erbecker relied on the only possible mitigating factor in Mrs. Baniszewski's defense — mental incompetence — even though her official plea was a simple Not Guilty. "I condemn her for being a murderess, that's what I do," Erbecker said, "but I say she's not responsible because she's not all here!" He pointed to his head.

The other defense attorneys all tried to shove as much blame onto Gertrude and the others as possible while pleading that the tender ages of their own clients made them less than fully responsible.

Prosecutor New made an impassioned plea for the death penalty for all of the accused. He told them that, "The issue here is . . . law and order. Will we allow such acts? Will we allow such brutality on a human being? If you go below the death penalty in this case, you will lower the value of human life by that much for each defendant."

When the verdicts, came back, only Gertrude Baniszewski was convicted of first-degree murder. To the surprise and consternation of many observers, the jury did not sentence her to death. She appealed and was granted a new trial in which she was again convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

John & Gertrude Baniszewski saying farewell after their convictions.
John & Gertrude Baniszewski saying
farewell after their convictions.

Paula was convicted of second-degree murder. She appealed and was granted a new trial but passed it up to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter. She was released after a few years.

 

The murder charge against Stephanie Baniszewski was dropped as were the injury to person charges against Anna Siscoe, Judy Duke, Randy, Lepper and Mike Monroe.

John Baniszewski, Coy Hubbard, and Richard Hobbs were convicted of manslaughter. Each spent a grand total of eighteen months in a juvenile detention facility.

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