These are two stories I wrote some years ago about a woman who was sentenced to prison for shooting and killing her abuser.
Attorney: “Are any of you familiar with - it’s gotten some press and there’s even been movies about what is considered the battered women’s syndrome. Women that have been in abusive relationships for a long period of time and it affects their reasoning ability. Are you all familiar with it? Anybody seen the movie The Burning Bed?”
Attorney: “That’s a pretty good flick, but I don’t know that that’s relevant to this case. That’s good because this case isn’t necessarily about that.” - Circuit Court of Washington County, March, 1990
The facts of the case were simple, and easy to understand. One September day in 1989, Vina Mae Thompson bought a .22 revolver from a local pawnshop, ostensibly for self-defense. Later that day, she used the gun to kill her companion of several years, claiming that he had attacked her, and she was fearful for her life. After he fled the house, she followed him and fired several more bullets into him.
As an attorney friend said to me, “It wasn’t the bullets in front that bothered the jury so much, but the ones in back.”
To many of his friends, the victim seemed a pretty decent guy who’d had some bad luck in life. Others, however, saw him as a far different individual. Certainly the picture that Vina herself painted for me was that of a twisted, cruel man who had made her life a physical and emotional Hell for several years. One of his truly endearing traits must have been his penchant for forcing her to reenact some of the more bizarre scenes he he witnessed in pornographic films.
he had also put her into the hospital on several occasions, as the result of severe beatings. After each event, he would tell her how much he loved her, baby, didn’t she see that? I guess she could be forgiven for doubting it.
But whatever the provocation behind the killing, her attorney chose not to use the battered women’s syndrome as a defense. I have been told that there has never been a successful defense in Arkansas using that argument. And so in March of 1990, Vina Mae was convicted by a jury of her peers, and on the recommendation of that jury of her peers was committed to the custody of the Department of Corrections for the rest of her natural life.
After her appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court was denied, Vina surrendered herself to the Washington County Sheriff’s Department one year ago this month. The weather that day was especially nice; the sun shone clear and bright.
I met Vina outside her bail bondsman’s office. She was accompanied by her stepfather and two of her children. Also attendance was her husband. After the killing, Vina was placed in the care of a local mental health facility, where after testing, it was determined that she had an IQ of 65. While there, she met a man who was in for treatment of his manic depressive states, under which he had at times contemplated suicide. They fell in love, and were married after her trial and conviction.
From our very first meeting he had been telling me of his “connections,” and his negotiations with the producers of the Geraldo Rivera television program, and his hopes to appear with Vina and “reveal the truth.” I’ve met his type scores of times over the years; they are full of specifics over what the future holds, yet curiously vague over their immediate past and current status. In the world of fantasy, the bullshit artist is king.
The day I had met Vina and her husband, he had been wearing jeans and and a clean, long-sleeved shirt. Today, however, he was dressed in an old black sweat suit which was obviously several sizes too small for him; the sleeves were cut from the top, making it into a very warm T-shirt. It seemed he hadn’t shaved for several days, and his body odor was alarming.
I’ve stunk myself plenty of times in the past, and my appearance hasn’t always been the best, but I think I could muster up something a little better to see my wife off to prison. To top it off, he had a court date himself later that afternoon, dealing with a driving offense. he wasn’t exactly “dressed for success.”
He seemed very supportive of Via, though, which is all that counts, I suppose.
We discussed her legal strategies, which seemed limited. According to her lawyer, an appeal to the United states Supreme Court might take as long as seven years, and she would have to serve that amount of time at the very least, anyway. Others I spoke to discounted the possibility of a pardon, given the fact that the murder victim had been black and considering Bill Clinton’s ultimate political aspirations, which were apparent even then.
We talked of minor things that afternoon. She introduced me to her children, who appeared numb. Her husband did most of the talking, very little of which I can now recall. I remember him planning to move further south, so he could be closer to her prison.
Her stepfather, who happens to be a personal fried of mine, was close to tears the entire time. He is a decent man who has always treated Vina like his own daughter, which is more than her real father, or her first stepfather (who sexually abused her) can say.
She signed a document authorizing me to pick up all of her medical records (since I had written about her before, and was interested in doing so again) and then we went to the hospital to arrange their release. That business concluded, there was nothing left to do but drive to the Sheriff’s Department.
The air was becoming very close at about this time, and even breathing seemed difficult. At the office, Vina Mae announced herself, and a female deputy came out to escort her into the jail itself, where she would spend the night before being transferred to prison.
I pulled myself into the background while she hugged her children, who clung to her very tightly. Her stepfather held her close, tears streaming down his lined face, and then her husband stepped up and kissed her, his arms around her.
I was the only one not crying, save for the deputy. I suppose this scene is an everyday occurrence at any jail, but it was a new experience for me. She followed the officer through the door, and it shut heavily behind them.
As I stepped outside, the sun was still shining down brightly. Though my initial steps were slow, my pace increased as I walked away from the jail.
Vina has been in prison for a year now, and her stepfather tells me that she seems to be “adjusting.” Her husband, who had planned to move closer to her, still lives in Fayetteville. He has visited her a handful of times since her imprisonment.
Geraldo Rivera’s producers never got in touch with him.
Grapevine - August 21, 1992
Death and the Sisters
“I made a quiet move over night. The guy I was living with turned out to be somewhat of a nut case.” Twenty-eight year old Stella Marie Vidler wrote those words to one of her sisters in early 1993. Before the month was over, she would be dead, victim of a man who “loved” her. In fear, she was obliged to move from one residence to another after leaving the home she had shared with 47 year old Donald Erwin, a respected Dallas fire fighter, and Vietnam Veteran.
That spring, Stella found herself looking at her lover with new eyes, after he pulled a gun on her after an argument. Before this, he had displayed evidence of severe instability, going so far as to forbid her to speak to other men. He had also instructed her on how she should dress. Earlier in the year, he had been jealous when she had hugged male relatives at her grandmother's funeral.
She sought temporary shelter, first with her ex-husband, then a sister, and finally a friend. Stella was eventually able to find an apartment where she hoped that she would be safe from Erwin.
She was wrong.
Stella told her sister that Erwin had told her new landlady that she was his runaway daughter. She said the landlady obliged the grateful “father” by affirming that she was on the premises.
Erwin began calling Stella in an attempt to win her back. He continued to buy her presents, which she accepted, though they were no longer a couple. One of the last presents he gave her was an ankle bracelet.
Why did she accept the gifts? Perhaps you just don't turn down presents from a man who might pull a gun on you.
On June 29th, as she was leaving her job at Texas Instruments, Donald Erwin accosted Stella in the employee parking lot. Evidently, he was trying to force her into a van which he had rented.
She fought with him furiously, screaming for help. At some point in the struggle, he fired a bullet into her head, causing instant brain death.
Leaving behind the fallen Stella and the rented van, he sped away in her new car. He was not located until the day after her funeral, when the Dallas Police found the car parked four blocks away outside a motel, where he had been renting a room for almost two weeks before the killing. Inside they found Erwin's body, a “victim”of suicide.
Though her brain was dead, Stella's body clung to life long enough for her mother to arrive from Arkansas and see her child a bare two hours before death. She was no longer recognizable as a human being, but instead was sunken in on herself. “Her body looked like a blow up doll,” her mother said later.
End of story.
Well, not quite. Besides the sister living in Texas, Stella had another sister, Vina Mae Thompson, who lived through a similar experience some years ago.
Vina, a victim of childhood sexual abuse, spent much of her adult life getting involved with men who sought victims, and saw natural prey in the slightly built young woman. Several years ago Vina was living with a man whose mood swings were unpredictable, and who had put her into the hospital on several occasions. He had also sexually assaulted her with a Coke bottle.
Though they broken up several times, they always reconciled.
On September 18th, 1989, Vina went to a local pawn shop and bought a 22 pistol for the sum of $55.65. It was money which her boyfriend had given her, wanting her to have “protection.” That afternoon, according to Vina, he attacked again, knocking her to the floor, promising that she was finally going to get what was coming to her. She later claimed that he had a knife.
Vina shot and killed him, pumping several bullets into him. Because the Battered Women's Defense was not used at her trial, the past violence could not be mentioned in court.
Vina Mae Thompson lives today in an Arkansas prison, if you can call that sort of existence living.
The difference between the two sisters would have been like visiting two different countries. Stella was a popular employee who had just been promoted, while Vina, diagnosed as having a lower than average IQ, was never able to get her life in order. She drifted from one undesirable man to another, from dead-end job to dead-end job.
Though Stella never discussed Vina very much with the rest of her family, one can easily imagine that she must have thought about her in her last few months, while Donald Erwin made her life a hellish nightmare. Indeed, it was to Vina that Stella wrote the lines about having to leave overnight.
She told other employees that he had threatened to kill both her and her daughters. Surely she was aware of how Vina's attempts to save her own life had only guaranteed her another prison.
So Stella fought Erwin using the law, filing an assault charge against him after he pulled the gun on her in the spring. The police were unable to protect her, since aside from the firearm incident, he did nothing illegal up to the day he shot her down in the parking lot.
Vina Mae, who took the law into her own hands and killed a man, will be out of prison someday, perhaps reshaping her life into something meaningful, finally able to put her pain behind her. Stella Marie has only a cold grave.
End of story.
Fayetteville Begin - August, 1993
Quote of the Day
We tolerate differences of opinion in people who are familiar to us. But differences of opinion in people we do not know sound like heresy or plots. - Brooks Atkinson