Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer is the 2003 documentary film primarily surrounding the life of Aileen Wuornos while she was imprisoned for the murder of seven men.
Director Nick Broomfield examines briefly Aileen’s life growing up, and through interviews and courtroom footage, tries to find out whether Aileen was wrongly prosecuted, or if she indeed was a cold-blood murderer.
Anyone who’s studied this case can agree that many factors come into play here.
First, Aileen’s past. Although this film says her biological mother abandoned her when she was six months old, other records show that her mother left when Aileen was about four, leaving her and her brother with their grandparents. Aileen’s father was jailed for kidnapping an abusing a young boy, before he killed himself and before Aileen ever met him. Her grandfather who raised her was abusive, while also being rumored to be her real father, and a former acquaintance claimed Aileen had sex with her brother. By about age nine, she was trading blowjobs for cigarettes, and at age fourteen she had a baby with a supposed local pedophile; the baby was put up for adoption. Due to her home life and her grandmother passing, she decided to move out to a nearby woods in Michigan, where she began to prostitute herself and where she stayed for two years, withstanding cold winters. Soon she moved to Florida, was briefly married and divorced, and soon met acquaintance and girlfriend Tyria Moore in Daytona. She also did a lot of drugs, especially LSD, as a teenager.
From 1974-1988, Wuornos took part in many criminal acts, including armed robbery, grand theft auto, assault and battery, driving under the influence, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace and more. Within 1989-1990, she killed seven men while prostituting herself.
Simply from this perspective, it’s easy to see how abuse and abandonment played a large role in Aileen’s life from a young age. While one could argue that not all abused children grow up to be serial killers, one’s past should not be disregarded in regards to the crimes they commit. Perhaps if our justice system focused more on one’s psychological profile instead of black and white morality, maybe the death penalty debate would diminish, the accused would get a fairer trial, and people would have more faith in the system as a whole. Of course murder should never be justified, but what about all the people who contributed to the mental state of the accused, who essentially pulled the trigger themselves, but who got away scot-free? Although we see that money was a key reason why Aileen killed these men, we also have to remember that the reason why they were so disposable to her was that all of the men in her life treated her the same way.
One aspect of any documentary one must examine is whether the director takes an objective or subjective stance. Nick Broomfield opens up the film with a picture of Aileen, referring to her as a “male-hating lesbian prostitute.” As Nick discovers that Aileen’s first lawyer and a few police officers essentially screwed up her case in order to profit from the media, he shows sympathy for her, (calling her “the most honest person in the case,”) and believing that she wasn’t offered a fair trial. However, in later interviews Aileen reveals that she indeed committed the murders purely to rob the men, and it wasn’t in self-defense, after which Broomfield’s opinion of her seems to change slightly, as she not only put on a highly convincing an emotional “victim” performance for the jury, but she fooled Nick as well (of course, she later recants that statement to Nick personally.) By the end of the film, Nick talks to the press, stating that Aileen was obviously mentally ill at the time of her execution, and he himself seems unsure of what he believes. So… I would say that Broomfield did take an objective stance overall, although never should a person take a client’s statement at face value, an often I thought he could have asked better questions.
Of course, a key element in this case as mentioned previously was the corrupt agendas of the lawyers, cops and family members, in regards to exploiting Aileen’s case in the media for personal profit. From this documentary alone, we see in court that Aileen claimed the first murder was self-defense. Later, her lawyer Steve Glazer somehow convinced her that she would be better off confessing to more counts of murder, however she was still found guilty. We then learn that Glazer demanded 25K from Broomfield in exchange for his first interview with Aileen, along with the speculation that Glazer was high when he convinced Aileen to confess in court to the other murders (which was semi-proven with Bloomfield’s footage.) This, combined with the discovery that certain cops were illegally using information from the case to sell to the media, not only put the prosecutor’s case in jeopardy, but also caused Aileen to change her story. She first claimed it was self-defense, then told Broomfield it was premeditated murder, then she would not reveal anything at all in regards to her innocence or guilt, and essentially sabotaged her own case in order to quicken her descent to death row (by sabotaging witnesses in her defense, for example,) in the belief that she would rather die quickly then suffer in prison. She also was extremely against her case being used in the media, and thus did not want to give the press any more fuel then they already had.
(Also, if Steve Glazer was indeed high, Aileen should have been offered a better deal than she got. If roles were reversed, any lawyer would not hesitate in any matter to use the idea of illegal pot smoking to help build their case. In addition, Tyria, Aileen’s lover, knew about the murders but was never charged because she essentially testified against Aileen, while it was also rumored she was working with the corrupt cops in order to gain money off of movie rights.)
The only thing Aileen would speak out about was the corruption within the police force, which notably was done in the last interview, perhaps because Aileen was in some way abused in prison, and didn’t want to be further brutalized by attacking the system before her execution. She told Broomfield that the cops knew she committed the first murder, but because of her poor background, occupation of being a hooker, and the rarity of a woman serial killer, the cops didn’t arrest her, and therefore allowed her to commit the remaining murders so the serial killer title could be established. As I’ll get into soon, she also mentioned specific brutalities that she experienced while in prison, which to Broomfield and others came across as so far-fetched that Aileen then became labeled a paranoid mental case, and anything else that she stated became bogus.
At the film’s conclusion, Broomfield says that Aileen was obviously mentally unstable due to these last remarks, however what isn’t at all far-fetched (and what I thought Nick should have asked more questions about,) was the fact that the police knew of her first murder and didn’t do anything about it. In 1989, when the first murder took place, forensic science was advanced enough that police could determine more information regarding the case. However, there is no mention that any such investigation took place. Also, Aileen admits she was no professional killer and surely left evidence on the scene, which seems perfectly plausible, and brings up the point that perhaps Aileen in some form knew and maybe even wanted to get caught; if that was the case, she of all people would know that the cops didn’t arrest her right away on purpose, although it would definitely hurt her case by admitting that.
Secondly, although I did not see the entire trial, there is no mention in the documentary or the media of any concrete evidence, such as how the bodies were found, the trajectory of the gunshot wounds, if any money was missing from the victims, etc. Instead, the case is focused purely on the fact that this is a woman who had violent tendencies, and raises the question of whether the case would have been treated differently if Aileen was a pretty young girl from a straight family.
And just as Aileen was viewed more negatively for being a prostitute, there is no mention at all that these men were seeking sex in exchange for their money. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that often men get rough with prostitutes, not to mention commit violent acts like murder against them. Essentially, there seemed to be no proof that these men got rough with Eileen, but there was no proof that they didn’t either.
As mentioned before, the night before Aileen’s execution Nick performs one last interview, but unfortunately had to do so with several cops and the warden in the same room. It was here where Aileen mentioned the cops knowing about the first murder, while she also mentions her hatred for the system. She says that while in prison she was threatened with rape, her food was often tainted, since 1997 the cops were using “sonic pressure” on her head, and an intercom was secretly taping her in her cell. She specifically says “let them know” before purposely looking down, and then claiming she was unjustly treated. This may be a stretch, but with all this talk of the system perhaps Aileen was referring to the Illuminati, and “them” is the people on the bottom of the pyramid (the top belongs to people in power and authority; the bottom is the working class and poor that often are taken advantage of.) Still, because her claims seemed so bizarre, and because it’s noted that she rarely ever left her cell, the media, cops and even Broomfield himself claimed she was crazy. While Broomfield brings up the debate of whether or not someone who is insane should be executed, this “crazy” factor also hurt Aileen’s case, as even after her death many would essentially attribute the murders with the fact that she was insane. (Note: If you’re watching this scene in the documentary, make note of the body language of the male cop sitting behind her.)
Essentially, no one will ever know the complete truth about this case. But what is obvious is that if Aileen was mentally unstable, it wouldn’t be hard for authorities to toy with her mind for their benefit. In addition, Aileen clearly had a rough childhood, and the fact of her being an aggressive, lesbian woman with a rightfully ingrained hatred and mistrust of men, obviously made her look like more of a “monster” than she was. This does not make her murders justified in any way, and I personally feel she should have served time no matter what, but it’s clear that the frenzy of the American media can clearly diminish one’s chance of a fair trial in this country. As long as money reigns supreme over morality, there truly is no justice.