Within the last couple of decades, the US had Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, who didn’t just grab headlines but became embedded in the national consciousness as the darkest of devils, as evil personified. Canada had Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, and Karla was released yesterday after serving out her twelve-year sentence.
A sentence which was too. Abominably. Short.
She got off easy, and I think she knows it.
God knows there are a lot of killers out there; a lot of murders; why is it that some killers are forgotten, and others actually become the pop-culture legends they always believed themselves to be? Paul and Karla’s trial was the Canadian answer to OJ: the trial of the century. Twelve years ago I was home for the summer — living in Peterborough, Ontario, not all that far from the town where Paul and Karla kidnapped, tortured and murdered two schoolgirls in their quiet little house in a nice little neighborhood. I remember following the trial on TV and in the newspapers — really, you couldn’t escape it — and I remember becoming very upset and emotional as the details of the girls’ ordeals slowly and relentlessly emerged. I’m not a gushy person; I’m not particularly faint of heart; I had read my share of Anne Rule books and was well-versed in the whole Ted Bundy saga. (In fact, I remember having earnest arguments about capital punishment with a Christian high school friend of mine on the day of Bundy’s execution. My position: erasing Bundy from human society at large did not strike me as such a bad thing).
Maybe it’s because I had accumulated that stockpile of images and details and knowledge about serial killers and what their victims go through, why Paul and Karla — who weren’t operating in some vague faraway place but an Ontario town interchangeable with my own — hit me so hard. Suddenly it wasn’t just a grisly narrative anymore. (I had a similar feeling when, years later after moving to California, I met someone who had been a student at the Florida university during the Bundy murders there, which he recalled vividly and which had never been just a ‘grisly narrative’ for him. The night of Bundy’s execution, he told me, he kept getting on the phone with people who were taking part in the ‘Bundy death parties’ raging all night on the Florida campus, and he still wishes he could have taken part in them).
Karla got off easy for a couple of reasons: she made a deal, offering up information about her lover Paul Bernardo which proved redundant when a hidden cache of videotapes were found; and also because she was young and attractive and played the whole victimized-woman role very well. Keep in mind, one of the women she helped give up to Paul was her own younger sister, who died. If Karla was being tried today, would the justice system have been so lenient with her? If she had been older and fat and plain, or ugly, if she had been crude and poorly spoken and trashy, would they have been willing even then to cast her as another kind of victim, to allow her a twelve-year sentence for the same crimes that, for a man in parts of the States, would easily have resulted in the death penalty?
She served at least part of her sentence in the women’s maximum-security prison in Kingston, Ontario, which is the same town where I went to university. You actually passed by parts of the prison complex en route to some of your classes. She herself was taking correspondence courses and ended up getting a psychology degree.
One might say she attempted to better herself.