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Serial Killer Subject of Undergraduate Research Thesis

May 17, 2018 – Grace O’Toole’s fascination with the psychological underpinnings of the legal system led her to do her senior thesis on the execution of Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

O’Toole (C’18), an American studies major and psychology and English minor who will graduate later this week, became interested in the case after taking two courses – Prisons and Punishment with government professor Marc Howard and Psychology and the Legal System with psychology professor Jennifer Woolard.

The graduating senior believes Wuornos, executed in 2002 for the murder of six men and the subject of the 2003 film Monster, was severely mentally ill and that her treatment in the criminal justice system didn’t “meaningfully incorporate mental health policy.”

Mitigating Factors

“Wournos’ execution today may have been considered unconstitutional,” O’Toole said during a presentation of her senior thesis. “She was arguably mentally ill at the time of execution and her clinical evaluations before that execution were less than an hour-and-a-half and were based on Florida’s competency standards that are more stringent compared to others.”

O’Toole noted that Wuornos was abandoned by her mother and sexually abused by family members and others starting at a very young age.

“I am investigating the way that mitigating factors such as childhood background, development and abuse are de-emphasized or not taken into relevancy in trials and cases and appeals,” she said. “With Aileen Wuornos’ case, there was a definite use of her case politically to support crime and punishment values.”

Humanizing Evil

Howard, director of the university’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, said O’Toole is “clearly not afraid to take on a really difficult project that deals with very emotional, even traumatic issues that most people I think would want to shy away from or even pretend don’t exist.”

“I think she’s helping to shed light on the much larger and more common systemic problem in our criminal justice system,” said Howard, O’Toole’s thesis advisor. “She’s humanizing the person who clearly did evil things but also understanding the background and the context and then the larger implications of the kind of one-size-fits-all criminal justice system which in the end is not very humane.”

O’Toole of Bronxville, New York, hopes to work as a paralegal after graduation before considering law school.

Making a Contribution

All American studies majors are required to do an interdisciplinary senior thesis, many of which are 60 to 80 pages long.

“The American Studies undergraduate program at Georgetown is known around the country for the rigor of the senior thesis process,” said Erika Seamon, an American studies associate teaching professor whom O’Toole considers a mentor. “The students dare to cross the bounds of disciplines and in doing so they are forced to play with multiple methodologies … to read very different kinds of text and … engage with primary sources in ways that allow them to confidently … say that they are making a contribution to scholarship in their field.”

Seamon said many of the students’ projects “feel like graduate-level work.”

A Georgetown Family

O’Toole, whose parents, Kimberly (B’88, L’91) and Edmund (L’91) met at Georgetown Law, became interested in attending the university several years before she applied.

“Throughout high school, I had it in my mind to do well on this test so that everything’s good for Georgetown,” she said. “I applied to other early action schools, but once I got into Georgetown I withdrew all my other applications because I knew I only wanted to come here.”

Her younger sister, Brennan O’Toole, is a member of the Class of 2020.

Jesuit Ideals

The graduating senior said Catholic traditions have always been part of her family, and she has found it comforting to be at a Jesuit institution like Georgetown.

“A lot of the Jesuit ideals were something I didn’t even know were important to me but I did find myself throughout my process having those be subconsciously at the forefront,” she said.

While she sometimes worries that her senior thesis topic will make her seem “fascinated with the dark and depraved,” the graduating senior says she really just wants to view cases such as Wuornos’ through the critical lens of understanding human behavior.

“Wuornos even said if she’d had support when she was young, she would have turned out differently,” O’Toole said. “There are pockets and stories of America that are not always explored because it’s hard to look at, but nothing will get remediated if people just look away.”