Mom and the murderers
Northstate author is part amateur criminologist, part pen pal to prisoners
What it must be like to check the mail at the Furio household. A Northstate author who now has two books about murderers under her slim belt, 32-year-old Jennifer Furio has placed herself in the surreal position of making macaroni and cheese for her kids one minute and firing off a letter to a serial killer pen pal the next.
Her book, Letters From Prison: Voices of Women Murderers, released this month, seeks to understand what makes women kill and also spark discussions about how society can intervene before they snap.
Furio won’t reveal exactly where she lives because, well, she’s tight with convicted killers. But suffice it to say it’s in our neck of the woods.
Furio’s earlier book, The Serial Killer Letters: A Penetrating Look Inside the Minds of Murderers, caused a stir, and she was branded an apologist for killers. “There was a lot of backlash that I was empathizing with the men,” she said, adding that in some people’s minds that has made her a poster girl for discounting the victim.
But Furio hasn’t shied away from the activist label in this book. In fact, she’s embraced it. Furio has been sought after to speak before judges and has appeared on Inside Edition and consulted with 20/20. Of the 13 female convicts she writes about in Letters From Prison, Furio advocates special consideration for or even the release of nearly all of them.
Her true goal in helping the prisoners tell their stories, she explains, is that people will realize that murderers often grow from abusive childhoods, and not only can they be prevented from killing, they also can be rehabilitated after the fact.
She found that women—usually society’s nurturers—kill for different reasons than men do. They either “snap” after years of psychological and physical abuse or they’re pressured into it by men they fear losing. Some, like Christina Riggs, who was executed last year, kill their children thinking they’ll be better off in heaven. “They’re not really killing to be evil,” Furio insists. Her own children are 8 and 6.
“We need to be looking at IQ levels and mitigating circumstances—childhood trauma,” she said. For killers who are more insane than evil, the punishment-based prison system leaves no room for forgiveness or healing and won’t do anything to help them get better, Furio maintains.
Sometimes, she admits, there are no answers, as in the case of Suzan Carson, who grew up privileged and ended up going on some kind of hippie killing spree with her husband. Hope Rippey and Toni Lawrence were troubled teens, but no one expected them to go along with it when their friends beat a 12-year-old rival and burned her to death.
Other times it’s clearer, as with Brenda Spencer, whose father/sex abuser gave her a gift of a gun and ammo shortly before she shot up a San Diego school yard at age 15. “She was crying out for help,” Furio summarizes. “Little girls are just as capable of acting out their rage,” she said. “Women will become deviant.”
Besides the criticism that Furio was letting killers “off the hook” by focusing on childhood trauma and brain dysfunction, she also caught flak for revealing so little of herself in the mostly one-sided correspondence that was printed. This time, she’s included snippets of her own letters to the convicts, from shared thoughts about motherhood to a seemingly genuine curiosity to learn about why women kill. Without sensationalizing, she gets the convicts to write back and tell more. It’s a technique described by prisoner Carol Bundy as “100% manipulative horseshit designed to hit all the emotional buttons.”
Furio said, “I went into it kind of a staunch conservative about it all. I was thinking more in terms of women’s rights.” Eventually, “I had a lot more one-on-one contact with the women. It was a lot more of a bonding.”
As she exchanged letters with people who had grown up with experiences like bestiality and sex with one’s mother, she realized, “There’s some good reasons why things didn’t go right.”
Furio says not only other advocates but also lawmakers are listening. “My world opened up to a lot of people who felt this was valuable,” she said.
She’s signed a contract to do two more books: one on “team killers” and a biography of one of the women she profiles, and seeks release for, Veronica Compton, in prison since a 1980 botched murder attempt intended to throw police off the track of the so-called Hillside Strangler, Ken Bianchi, whom she had visited in prison and become infatuated with.
In an afterward to the book, Compton herself writes that participating in the book was a chance to “strike a blow against the exploitative popular stories of women criminals.”
That was Furio’s intent, and she’s proud of it.