The 12th Victim movie review & film summary (2023)

On January 21, 1958, Charles Starkweather shot and killed Fugate’s stepfather and mother and then stabbed her half-sister. Fugate has always claimed—and been affirmed via lie detector test—that Starkweather told her that they were someplace else and held the threat of their safety over her for the next several weeks as their crime spree unfolded. This is an essential part of the Fugate story because the narrative sold by cops and prosecutors later was that she knew about the deaths of her family. If she did not and believed that escaping Starkweather could put them in jeopardy, it changes everything.

For the next six days, Starkweather and Fugate lived in that home, turning away anyone who came to check on the family. Fugate even left a note on the door saying they were sick, and “The 12th Victim” asserts that the note contained an intentional error by Caril to alert the authorities who didn’t catch it. From there, things got much worse. Starkweather took Fugate across Nebraska and Wyoming, killing six more people before Fugate was able to escape to a police officer on the side of the road. At that point, many people presumed she was a kidnapping victim—the doc makes clear how the cops expected to find her body at one of the crime scenes eventually—but the story shifted in the public eye to make her an accomplice. She was sentenced to life in prison—the youngest ever—and Starkweather was given the death sentence in 1959. In 1976, Fugate was paroled, and people have fought for her pardon as recently as 2020, which was denied.

“The 12th Victim” opens with footage of the films that were inspired by the Fugate/Starkweather crimes, making clear its objective to correct a pop culture narrative that makes Fugate a willing murderer instead of a kidnapped child. It then cycles through Fugate’s life in relatively chronological order, confining the crimes to mostly the first episode and then spiraling through the legal battles and Fugate’s life after sentencing. She’s an undeniably fascinating subject, someone who could never shake the shadow of the accusations against her, even appearing on a show called “Lie Detector” to prove her innocence. It feels like the narrative around Fugate changed over time, as evidenced by a radio talk show where so many callers offered her support, but it’s nice to have this as a final word.

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