Shawna Forde Sentenced to Death

Shawna Forde, the anti-immigrant zealot convicted of killing a 9-year-old girl and her father, was sentenced to death by a Tucson jury today. Terry Greene Sterling on Forde’s abusive past—and the wingnuts who call her a martyr.

02.22.11 6:24 PM ET

For three days, a female Minuteman-turned-killer sat stonily in a Tucson, Arizona, courtroom as her lawyers fought to save her life by portraying her as an impulsive, detached, foolish narcissist who could not overcome her abuse-ridden childhood. They argued that Shawna Forde’s early years had been so traumatic that she should not be put to death for masterminding a 2009 home invasion in which 9-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father Raul were slaughtered on the Arizona border. 

Gallery: Women on Death Row

But in the end not even Shawna Forde’s childhood history, marked by repeated instances of sexual and physical abuse, neglect, and abandonment fueled by religious fanaticism, could save her. After deliberating for about a day, 11 women and one man sentenced Forde to death in Pima County Superior Court on Tuesday. The method of death, Judge John Leonardo ruled, would be lethal injection. Forde will be the third woman housed on Arizona’s death row.

Her death sentence will be automatically appealed, and Judge John Leonardo ordered that her mental-health records be transferred with the appeal.

Those mental-health records, plus oral family histories and the testimony of psychologists, Forde’s lawyers had hoped, would cause the jury to spare Forde.

Gallery: Shawna Forde Patrols the Border

Shawna Forde as her verdict was read on Tuesday. (Photo: Jonathon LeFaive, Pool)

Now 43, Forde was the seventh of nine children (from five different fathers) born into a family paralyzed by intergenerational sexual and physical abuse, according to her defense team.  Forde’s mother, Rena Caudle, said in a court video that when Forde was a 10-month-old baby, she dropped her off with a relative because Caudle’s boyfriend didn’t like Shawna. (The same relative who took Shawna in had molested Caudle when she was younger, Caudle told investigators.) 

Caudle later became a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and placed Shawna in informal foster households after consulting with church “elders.” By the time Washington state officials severed Caudle’s parental rights and arranged an adoption when Shawna was 5, she had lived in several homes and had been molested and abused, according to a defense investigator.

Shawna Forde later accused her adoptive father, a Boeing worker named Jeep Breightam who wore train-conductor overalls, of routinely molesting her while her adoptive mother Patti worked in the late afternoon at a bowling alley.

According to defense investigator Margaret DiFrank, Jeep professed his love for young Shawna because she was clean, and took her on trips in which he insisted she ride naked in the passenger seat.

No charges were ever filed against Jeep, who is now dead, and Joey Cheblik, a family friend who was Forde’s playmate and still “has a space in my heart for Shawna” disputed the allegations.

As a teen, according to defense witnesses, Forde shoplifted clothes from Sears and J.C. Penney’s, frequently ran away from home, had stints in homes for troubled youth, lived on the streets of Seattle and supported herself through prostitution, became addicted from age 12 on Halcion, Darvocet, Valium and Tylenol with codeine. She started smoking pot at 10 and went on to cocaine.

She tried to kill herself three times with drug overdoses as an adult. She married and divorced five husbands—including a Nicaraguan taxi driver she married to, ironically, to fix his papers.

Through all of this she had three children. One baby died of SIDS in Alaska, and The Arizona Daily Star reported that prosecutors would not present two witnesses who would say Forde told them she killed the baby.

Forde worked as a Boeing electrician and as a beautician, did volunteer work with homeless people, and tried to bond with her birth mother, Rena Caudle, who was reportedly proud of Forde’s border-vigilante activism. According to trial testimony, Forde often boasted that she would kick down doors and “change America” as the leader of her tiny Minutemen American Defense.

She also told a psychologist that she had been handpicked to run Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s campaign for the presidency from her jail cell. Two psychologists hired by Forde’s lawyers said her childhood caused her to become an emotionally detached, narcissistic woman with a low-average IQ, impaired insight and judgment, and several personality disorders stemming from her childhood.

“My concern is that Shawna doesn’t seem very likeable to you,” Forde’s lawyer Jill Thorpe told the jury as she wrapped up her failed plea for mercy. “Mental illness keeps Shawna Forde from saying she’s sorry,” Thorpe said.

Jurors met briefly with a tearful Gina Gonzalez, the mother and wife of the murder victims who was severely wounded but survived by playing dead and became the prosecution’s chief witness.

Angie Thomas, a 31-year-old juror and mother of two daughters, said Gonzalez had been through “great tragedy” and each juror wanted to speak with her.  “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, including the judge,” Thomas said.

Thomas said “hundreds of thousands” of people had bad childhoods, but they don’t turn into killers. Every day, Thomas said, she closes her eyes and sees a court exhibit picture of Brisenia Flores with “half her face” blown off. This case, she said, was “based on hate.”

Thorpe had told jurors that giving her client the death penalty would turn Shawna Forde into a martyr and fuel her feelings of grandiosity. That seems to be happening already.  After Forde was sentenced, Dutch Joens, a California-based Internet talk-radio host for Separatist Christian Militia Radio, said Forde was being persecuted for her white skin and patriotic views. Her website, called Justice for Shawna Forde, proclaimed: "It is a crime to be a white, conservative, Christian woman who loves your country if you’re caught in drug-smuggler-loving Pima County."

Forde married and divorced five husbands—including a Nicaraguan taxi driver she married to, ironically, fix his papers.

Last week, Forde maintained her innocence and said she would appeal her case during a jailhouse interview. “I wish I could say I was sorry it happened,” Forde told me.  “I am not sorry on my behalf because I didn’t do it.” 

What Forde, who has now decided to have her supporters vet journalists—and charge reporters who pass muster for interviews—is thinking is a mystery. After she was sentenced to death, Forde, dressed in a gray pant suit and pink blouse, maintained her flat affect. As the victims quietly wept, she looked straight ahead as she was led out of the courtroom in leg chains and handcuffs.

Terry Greene Sterling is an award-winning Arizona-based journalist and author of Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone. Visit her on Facebook, or her website.