The Donna Hylton Dilemma

If Charles Manson somehow managed to get himself released from prison, would he be your choice of an inspirational speaker? A freak show, perhaps, but getting past the fact that he’s the poster boy for the absolute worst of schizophrenia and paranoid delusions. He’s not the guy you would invite to dinner, even if you could.

But Manson has the experience to tell you about prison, about being sentenced to death, about many of the issues that confront society. It’s not that he lacks the knowledge and experience to offer insight. It’s that he’s a psycho killer.

So what makes Donna Hylton a wise choice for a person to speak to hundreds of thousands of women at their march?  At Fault Lines, Matt Brown tries to thread the needle of what someone like Hylton has to offer despite what she did. The “what she did” part needs to be said.

Vigliarole [the victim] believed the three girls were prostitutes who were going to have sexwith him. Instead, they picked him up on March 8 in Elmhurst, Queens, at Maria’s home, and drugged him to make him drowsy. Then they drove him to Selma’s apartment in Harlem. The apartment had already been prepared for an extended torture session: The closet door had been cut, a pot put in it for use as a toilet, the windows boarded.

For the next 15 to 20 days (police aren’t sure just when Vigliarole died), the man was starved, burned, beaten, and tortured. (Even 10 years later, Spurling could recall Rita’s chilling response when they questioned her about shoving a three-foot metal bar up Vigliarole’s rear: “He was a homo anyway.” How did she know? “When I stuck the bar up his rectum he wiggled.”)

The three girls took turns watching the man. It was Donna who delivered a ransom note and tape to a friend of Vigliarole’s, who was able to get a partial license plate number of the car she was driving. He notified the police, who traced the plate to a rental car facility. On April 6 the suspects were arrested, and detectives spent 36 hours straight interviewing the seven men and women. “We had to keep going back and forth and catch them in lies,” said Spurling. “It was a never-ending circle of lies.”

Spurling himself interviewed Donna: “I couldn’t believe this girl who was so intelligent and nice-looking could be so unemotional about what she was telling me she and her friends had done. They’d squeezed the victim’s testicles with a pair of pliers, beat him, burned him.

Hylton was sentenced to 25 years, and served 27 years in prison at Bedford Hills. She was sentenced by Judge Edwin Torres, a former criminal defense lawyer who turned hard-ass on the bench. That happens more than you realize.  The minimum sentence for the A1 felony of Second Degree Murder was 15 years to life. Torres hit her with another extra ten, the maximum sentence possible.*

There were mitigating factors as well. She claimed she suffered abuse as a child, including sexual molestation by her adoptive father. She wasn’t the mastermind of the crime. She did it for a promise of $9,000, which she wanted to get a modeling portfolio, a factor that could cut either way.

Since her release, Hylton has become a self-styled advocate for women’s rights and prison reform, and was chosen to speak at the Women’s March because of these attributes.

As Hylton very clearly explains on her website, she’s a women’s rights activist and criminal justice reform advocate. She is a woman. She is black. She was also the victim of abuse as a child and spent a long time in prison after committing a heinous crime.

Hylton’s life experiences are relevant to her causes. A white guy who’s never been to prison might be able to give a great talk about violence against women and inequality, but there’s an understandable draw to hearing about violence and discrimination against women from someone who’s experienced both. There’s an understandable draw to hearing about what happens to black women in the criminal justice system from a black woman who’s been through the criminal justice system. Hylton’s background doesn’t make her positions are any more valid, but even if her conclusions based on her life experiences are dead wrong, her perspective is colored by a very unique and very germane set of life experiences. Her views are worth hearing.

Everything Matt says is undeniably accurate, up to the last sentence of that paragraph:

Her views are worth hearing.

It’s not that her views are unworthy of hearing. If we’re to learn of the experience of someone who has spent 27 years in prison, there is one thing that should be recognized: they’re likely to have done something pretty awful. But then, there’s always a drug conviction, which could produce a sentence as long as, if not longer than, murder and torture, and the wrongfully convicted.

Hylton may well have the experiences, combined with the intelligence and capacity to speak, that make her a desirable person to put on the dais before a lot of people. But Hylton may also be a psychopath given her total lack of empathy when she was involved in the torture and murder of another human being.

Why Hylton? Was there no other person with her experiences who could stand in front of a sea of pink hats to inspire the crowd? No other woman? No other black woman?

Matt’s purpose was not to be an apologist for Hylton’s horrific crime, nor to extol her virtue as an inspirational speaker. He challenged the knee-jerk, simplistic reaction that her very availability and desire to speak to women’s issues and prison reform was an affront to the righteous folks who demand her execution.

Like Matt, I would have defended Hylton in court, fought the death penalty had it been a possibility (it wasn’t), and fought for her release after she completed her sentence. That some feel Hylton should never have been released, should have been executed, doesn’t concern me. They are allowed to be outraged. What she did was outrage-worthy, and while reasonable minds may differ as to whether she deserved to be released, the decision has been made. They can disagree with it all they want.

But to put her on the podium at the Women’s March as a person to whom others should look for inspiration? That’s a different matter. Torturing and murdering a human being is not the path to the top of the pedestal. There are others far more deserving of attention. There are few far less deserving of attention than Donna Hylton.

Donna Hylton should be thankful that she’s no longer in Bedford Hills and live a life of quiet desperation. The decision to make her a speaker at the Women’s March was a terrible one. She was not worthy.

*Under New York Penal Law §125.25, Murder in the Second Degree is an A-1 felony and carried a sentencing range of a minimum of 15 to life to a maximum of 25 to life.

31 thoughts on “The Donna Hylton Dilemma

  1. Patrick Maupin

    The American public’s longstanding love of stories of redemption and survivorship, combined with the perhaps more recent, as Nick would say, schadenboner exemplified by reality TV, practically guarantees a seven figure speaking income to Manson in the event of his release.

    A year ago, such a release seemed improbable; in today’s political climate, who knows? And who wouldn’t want to listen to uplifting words straight from the mouth of the monster?

    The fond feelings associated with childhood memories of “Do as I say, not as I do” become increasingly harder to access — sex, alcohol, smoking, drugs, affairs, divorce — passe and boring, one and all. What else have you got to talk about?

          1. Patrick Maupin

            If that word means that I dully yet doggedly attempt to make sense of my incomprehensible surroundings, sure.

  2. Jeff Gamso

    She should “live a life of quiet desperation”? Really? That’s what we want for those who’ve done their time, paid their debt to society (even if some of society thinks the payment insufficient)?

    Not me. I want her to be a productive member of the society that she damaged all those years ago. I want her to be a model demonstrating that even the worst can be redeemed.

    That doesn’t speak to whether she should have been on the podium. That’s really a question of cost/benefit for the folks who decided to put her there? Does he presence/story/presentation do more to persuade, encourage, activate, whatever than her back story damages? And if so, was she the best person for the job who was available for it? Damned if I know.

    But I know how I feel about the quiet desperation stuff.

    1. SHG Post author

      Was Thoreau saying they were unproductive? I’m as much of a fan of second chances as you, and a long time proponent of the debt paid perspective. That gets them out of prison and allows them to lead a law-abiding productive life. But to bootstrap her infamy into a career in punditry is bullshit. She gets to live. She doesn’t get to be an icon of adoration.

      If a life of quiet desperation is good enough for the mass of men, it’s good enough for her.

      1. Jeff Gamso

        Most people’s lives suck. At least, that’s what Thoreau was saying (albeit more delicately).

        Does she deserve to be an icon? To be adored? Probably not. Should her life suck just because most people’s lives suck? I get it that there’s no particular reason why hers should be better than most, but really, no one’s life should suck. (Though I confess to schadenfreude in some cases, and wishing for it in others.)

        1. PeacefulCanuck

          “Should her life suck just because most people’s lives suck?”

          No. Her life should not be praised and glorified because whether she was abused or not, whether she was wrongfully treated in prison or not, whether she was discriminated against for being black or not, she is an admitted/convicted rapist, murderer, and torturer. Her crimes don’t just disappear because she didn’t get treated nicely. I’m sorry she was abused. I’m sorry she was discriminated against. I’m sorry she has had a horrible life.

          I am also sorry that she thought it was okay to get paid $9000 ($6000 in the Psychology Today article) to “watch a rape” (or drive the vehicle). I’m sorry she tortured, sodomized, starved, beat and watched another human being be killed.

          You don’t get to do these horrible things to another person, then get up on a stage and discuss what happened to you during that time as if it was worse that what you did. Her own abuse is horrible and apalling and if we could go back in time, we’d prosecute her abusers the same way she herself was prosecuted. But the discrimination she’s suffered because she was in jail or because she was black does not equate to the things she admittedly did to a man for 20 days.

          Karla Homolka would have been a mistake. The Manson Women would have been a mistake. Donna Hylton was a mistake.

          1. aaa

            If you wanna get that criminal justice reform done one day, the one Scott Greenfield wants to be done, you better get used to criminals lives getting their lives better. There is no way around it. It is literally about despicable people being able to build new lives. And especially some of sociopaths (not sure if she is one, does not matter) will be able to get quite a lot of good for themselves out of it. There is no way around that either.

            (Another thing would be politically strategic argument, but that is not the one you are making. You just has bad feelings about someone despicable getting positive attention and demands her not being able to get it. Feelings are supposed to be bad.)

    2. Jason K.

      The quote being referenced was probably “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”. So that would imply a life no better and no worse than the majority of us.

    3. Lamia

      “…paid their debt to society”

      Murderers cannot ‘pay their debt to society’, because they owe society no debt.

      The debt is owed to the victim (and the victim’s family). It is the victim who was murdered, not ‘society’.

      She can never pay the debt she owes (unless she can bring the victim back to life), but she could, out of respect to the person whose life she took, lead a quiet life (NB ‘quiet’ does not necessarily mean ‘desperate’, although you seem to wish to yoke the two together) and not describe herself, grotesquely, as a ‘humanitarian’. She should not have been invited to that platform and she should not have accepted.

      But for ‘society’, entire or individually, to talk of her having paid her debt is an arrogant and callous presumption. She didn’t vandalise some public property and then fix it or pay to fix it. There is no fixing what she did. And it’s not for society or you or I to forgive it.

  3. Ryan

    Her chosen advocacy is what is off here. I think of a convicted gang murderer/torturer who upon release devotes himself to helping at risk kids and working to end gang violence. She appears to be out there trying to reform the ills she endured, rather then preventing other from following in her foot steps. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

    1. SHG Post author

      Excellent point. If she wanted to “help” society, there are ways she could have contributed that didn’t involve her self-aggrandizement. Then again, it’s not just Hylton, but those who would enable Hylton.

        1. Mike G.

          I know, right? We should be a shamed of trying to get these special snowflakes to practice even a modicum of personal responsibility. Why, it would be criminal!

  4. B. McLeod

    Possibly they invited her as an inspirational speaker because the organizers, too, dream of capturing and controlling men and torturing men to death. It fits in perfectly, except that the anti-gay slurs are no longer politically correct.

  5. Stella

    What kind of society do we want? Since 2.4 million of us are in prison and 1 in 37 of us has a record– should we be a society that literally never forgives? I think Donna Hylton payed a monumental price for her crime. I go to prison frequently to visit as a prison advocate. Prison is a terrible punishment – it’s like putting someone in hell. There is much I can say here through my own experience.

    I have a daughter with a record — should she be a pariah forever? My daughter paid a terrible price for possession of pot. Should she never be hired or thrive or become a success? Yet my daughter has been denied access to jobs and opportunity many times.

    I believe whatever your crime. If you paid your fine, if you have done your rehabilitation, if you have spent 27 yrs in prison where you entered at 19, then you
    Paid and you should get a new card and a new beginning. That’s all Donna is fighting for. I was at the March and I can tell you , Donna is a talented and power speaker and she has a wonderful presence about her. Why deny her success? Should she sit under a rock forever? Would that make us happy? Should my own daughter stay a waitres her whole life bc she has a drug possession felony? I am encouraging my daughter to reach for the stars! I encourage Donna Hylton to do the same. That woman has talent and she can ‘be the change we wish to see in the world’ anc guess what — her success is our collective success!

      1. Sgt. Schultz

        Nice of you to make a nutjob sandwich. Bet Stella didn’t even say thank you. So unappreciative.

  6. Sharon Hylton

    I am happy to see such an articulate summarisation of Donna and her crime.
    2) Her memories are fragmented bits of lies
    3) What she is doing is making herself THE VICTIM
    4) Judge Torres as a part of his sentencing stipulated that “no movies, books, or documentaries were to be made about this heinous crime because he did not want any of the murderers to benefit from the murder, torture, kidnap of the Victim. He was burned, clothed on in diapers and was given kool aid when they felt like feeding him.
    6) Her birth mother DID NOT SELL HER TO THE HYLTONS
    7) My mother NEVER threw her in the air and watched her drop to the ground
    8) Donna was a Spoiled child that was GIVEN EVERYTHING SHE WANTED.. Had the best of everything my parents made sure of that.
    9) She ran away from home of her own accord.
    10) Her daughters father did not rape her.. How do you rape someone who willingly ran away from home one week after Junior High prom?
    11) I am her Blood sister, we have the same mother and we were both adopted by the HYLTONS.
    12) She is a Sociopathic, PATHOLIGICAL Liar…Shows no empathy, remorse or sympathy to anyone she hurts.
    13) If she thinks she will benefit from you she will lay on the BABY VOICE CHARM, caress your hands and look you straight in the eye and LIE…
    14) The only reason they were not given the death sentence was because NYC had banned it when the crime was committed.

  7. LynnCD

    I appreciate your dispassionate look at this matter. It has distressed me for the past couple days since I first found out about it. The Psychology Today article, which seems to be the source material for what I’m reading was pretty horrifying. Is there anywhere online where one can read that she was horribly sorry about what she did? I can’t seem to find it.

    1. SHG Post author

      While these are called comments, not questions, the reason you can’t seem to find it is because it doesn’t exist. That said, she presumably expressed sorrow before the parole board, as they’re disinclined to release anyone on parole who doesn’t. But none of this is really relevant, which is why lawyers and judges (note, this is a law blog) here haven’t mentioned it.

      1. LynnCD

        K, thanks. And my apologies. As to contrition not being relevant, if I had heard from her own lips declaring that her behavior was monstrous, that she deserved more punishment than she received, a case could be made for her to speak publicly, I suppose. But no, as it stands she was an abominable choice. I’m not a lawyer, so this will be my last comment here: The women’s march leadership and others have tried to make the Nazi argument against their current political opponent. They could not have shot themselves any more in the foot by getting this Klaus Barbi wannabe to speak at their own rally.

        1. SHG Post author

          For future reference, defts and ex-cons regularly make grand acts and statements of contrition, and they’re largely taken with a grain of salt. It’s an appeal to emotion, which is fine but unsatisfying. If they did wrong, they should understand and appreciate it, and be remorseful for it. Often, they’re mostly remorseful about getting caught, not for doing it.

          In this instance, however, the issue isn’t her remorse, or even the degree of her remorse. The issue is what pathologies give rise to a person who can engage in the sort of conduct she engaged in. Different crimes happen for different reasons, or varying reasons, but the calculated torture, rape and murder of another human reflects something far different than, say, a drug sale, or even a heat of passion murder. That’s the problem here.

  8. Missime

    Oook. Ive been to prison. I am female. She is not going to help anyone if theyre not black. Racism is just as real for the women in jail as it is the men. Shes been down to long so shes programmed. She hates men and thats the only “honest” quality she can claim. She will set you up in a heartbeat and im betting shes doin people dirty at this moment. i see the jailhouse in her so i can avoid her madness but woe to u who think different. I think ill entertain myself to see who gets got.

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