Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens

Blaming the Victim

Although tried together, the attorneys for the defendants often worked at cross-purposes. Gertrude Baniszewski's story was that she had been too sick and chronically tired to know all the terrible things going on in her own home. The children had gone wild on Sylvia without her knowledge. The attorneys for the youngsters tried to shift as much blame as possible onto Mrs. Baniszewski or the other kids.

Mrs. Baniszewski testified in her own defense. She firmly denied all the terrible acts attributed to her. She did not "strike, beat, or kick" Sylvia. Gertrude tried to "paddle" Sylvia but was too weak and had to call Paula to finish the job. She also recalled slapping a misbehaving Sylvia's hands. With all the kids in her home, both her own and their many friends, a lot of fights broke out. Mrs. Baniszewski sometimes tried to break them up, she testified, but was usually too weak and sick even to make the effort.

However, even as Gertrude testified for herself, she often seemed to be testifying against the dead Sylvia. Her story of how she first heard about Sylvia brings up the issue of the girl's sexual conduct. According to Mrs. Baniszewski's testimony, a girl came to her door looking for Darlene MacGuire, who often visited the Baniszewski kids. Mrs. B. went to the door with Darlene and the visitor "related to Darlene — she wanted to know whether she knew where she could get hold of Sylvia Likens. . . . the reason this woman was hunting for Sylvia was supposed to have been Sylvia had been out with her husband. . . Darlene brought Sylvia Likens over to our home two days later and introduced her as the girl this other girl was looking for. That is how I first became acquainted with Sylvia Likens."

Another way the accused appeared to attempt to indict the victim occurred in her description of how the agreement to board the two girls was made. "Sylvia asked her father if she could stay with us," Mrs. B. claimed. "... I immediately said, 'No, I could not take care of you children. I have too many of my own and too many worries and too many responsibilities without adding any more. [Sylvia] said, 'Well, we can take care of ourselves, we are used to that.'" Just determined to live with the Baniszewskis — at least as Gertrude told it — Sylvia "turned around to her father and said, 'Daddy, you could pay her for letting us stay here.'"

In an exchange with the prosecutor, the accused insisted that Sylvia was unremittingly rebellious.

BANISZEWSKI: She would not do anything I told her, no.
NEW: She was disobedient?
BANISZEWSKI: She would not mind me, no.
NEW: Did you whip her for that?
BANISZEWSKI: I believe I testified I whipped her. Or tried to one time.
NEW: How many times was she disobedient to you?
BANISZEWSKI: I told you she would not mind me at all.
NEW: How many times.
BANISZEWSKI: I think I answered your question. I said she would not mind at all.
NEW: Ever?
BANISZEWSKI: Not that I can recall.

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