Serial Killer’s Life Still Intrigues on the Eve of Her Death


She may be America’s only death row inmate to have inspired an opera--a six-time convicted murderer with a bleak childhood and rough life who has puzzled and intrigued criminologists. And this morning, she is due to die.

At 9:30, executioners at Florida State Prison are scheduled to empty two syringes of potassium chloride into the bloodstream of Aileen Wuornos, stilling the heart of a rare female serial killer.

The 46-year-old former prostitute, who murdered seven mostly middle-aged men along Florida highways more than a decade ago, battled in court to bring her own end closer, firing her lawyers and dropping her appeals.


“If I have to spend life in prison, I will kill,” Wuornos once told a judge. “I will kill again.”

“She was a homicidal predator,” John Tanner, the state attorney for four Florida counties who was the prosecutor at her 1992 trial, said at the time. “She was like a spider on the side of the road, waiting for prey--men.”

On Tuesday, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously rejected a request by an Ohio group to challenge Wuornos’ execution on grounds she is mentally incompetent and a “borderline psychotic.”

Last week, a panel of three psychiatrists reported to Gov. Jeb Bush that Wuornos understood she was facing the death penalty and what its application meant. “Therefore she is competent to be executed” under state law, the psychiatrists said. Bush signed a death warrant for her on Sept. 5, suspended it pending the findings of the psychiatric evaluation, then reinstated it on Oct. 2.

If Wuornos does die today at the state prison near Starke, she will be only the second woman executed in Florida since the death penalty was reinstated nationally in 1976. On March 30, 1998, Judi Buenoano of Orlando went to the electric chair, the legal means of capital punishment at the time, for fatally poisoning her husband with arsenic, drowning her partially paralyzed son and trying to kill her fiance with a car bomb.

It was the first execution of a woman in Florida since a slave named Celia was hanged in 1848 for killing her master.

Nationally, nine women have been executed since 1976. As of July, there were 52 women on death rows in the United States, or 1.4% of the total number of condemned killers, according to the Death Penalty Information Center’s Web site.

“Murder is primarily a male activity,” James Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston and the author of five books about serial and mass murders, said in an interview. “Ninety percent of murders are committed by men.”

There have been other female serial killers; currently, a 41-year-old nurse in the Netherlands is accused of administering lethal drug cocktails to 13 of her patients. “But Wuornos is unique in that she killed in the style of male serial killers,” Fox said. “She killed strangers selected at random. Women generally don’t kill people they don’t know.”

What drove Wuornos, Fox said, is still conjecture. “I think the motive was robbery,” he said. “I supposed she wanted to have her way with these men. She may have felt they were trying to get control, and she decided to be the one to have the last laugh.”

The grisly trail left by the ninth-grade dropout, who became known as the “Damsel of Death,” began in December 1989, when the remains of a Clearwater, Fla., electronics shop owner were found in a junkyard. It was the first of six male bodies that would turn up in a 13-month period near interstate highways in north-central Florida.

Wuornos was arrested in January 1991 at a Daytona Beach biker bar. At her trial, she said she intended to rob one of her customers because she was afraid she was about to lose her lesbian lover and needed $200 for rent. She shot Richard Mallory, 51, the shop owner, in self-defense after he tied her to a steering wheel and sodomized her, she said.

“I’m the innocent victim, not him,” Wuornos told the jury, which convicted her anyway. She later pleaded no contest to the murders of five other men, and received six death sentences. She said she killed a seventh man whose body was never found.

Wuornos had been abandoned at birth by her parents and raped at 13. “I don’t think she’s a monster; she is someone who was seriously damaged and who snapped,” said Carla Lucero, 38, a San Francisco composer and librettist who became fascinated with Wuornos’ life. “Now she just wants to die. She is tired of living a life without love and support.”

“Wuornos,” the opera Lucero took five years to write, premiered at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in June 2001. It ends with the protagonist, both victim and villain, lamenting: “I am a child in your arms, my God; you cannot reject me too.”

The saga of the Florida death row inmate has also engendered true-crime books, a comic book and at least three movies, one of which, “Damsel of Death, The Aileen Wuornos Story” by writer, director and producer Jackelyn Giroux, was selected for this year’s New York International Independent Film Festival.

Raag Singhal, a Fort Lauderdale attorney, spoke with Wuornos six weeks ago and found her eager to die. “Her attitude was she wanted to be executed as soon as possible,” Singhal said. “She certainly did not want to live in prison for the rest of her life.”

However, the lawyer said he has doubts about her mental stability and tried to get the state Supreme Court to delay the execution. He was sharply critical of how police and the state justice system had dealt with Wuornos, and hypothesized gender had been a handicap.

“Ted Bundy was offered life to resolve his cases,” said Singhal, referring to the notorious serial killer who confessed to killing 23 women and girls, and was put to death at Starke in 1989. “But Aileen is someone they always sought the death penalty for.”