More than 30 years ago, Donna Hylton went to prison for her role in the torture and murder of a 62-year-old real estate agent in New York City. Last week, she gave a prominent speech at the Women’s March — a public demonstration against the incoming Trump administration and its potential to dial back women’s rights.
Conservative media was quick to call out what they saw as a major hypocrisy: Liberals mortified by Trump’s suggestions that the C.I.A. might bring back black sites and torture were willing to overlook Donna’s own horrendous crimes. Some were especially incensed considering that Hylton was allowed to speak at the Women’s March, a place where pro-life advocates were not welcome.
— Donna Hylton (@DonnaHylton) January 23, 2017
As usual, the truth is bit more nuanced than partisan media would have you believe. Perhaps the best tools the public has to understand the Donna Hylton crimes are her memoir and a lengthy profile published in 1995 by reporter Jill Neimark in Psychology Today. The latter source accounted for almost all of the information in the articles repudiating her presence at the Women’s March.
One egregious omission from such critical editorials is the lack of innocence behind Donna’s victim himself. Thomas Vigliarole was indeed a real estate broker, but he was also a con man that New York City detectives believed was also plotting the kidnapping of a New Jersey judge and a Philippine head of state. Hylton was indirectly hired to carry out the crime by a business associate, Louis Miranda, who thought that Vigliarole had cheated him out of $139,000.
Of course, the fact that Vigliarole was also a criminal does not expunge Donna from being complicit in his rape and murder, but the fact that it’s glossed over in these articles which, in turn, accuse protesters of glossing over Hylton’s flaws indicates a clear agenda.
The first such outlet to arm the case against Donna was The American Spectator, which goes as far as to insinuate that Hylton is a psychopath — based on the fact that Neimark comments on her “hypnotic sweetness.” In fairness, there are other details scattered throughout Neimark’s profile that do give substance to this viewpoint. In one moment, Hylton says that her contractor for the kidnapping told her that “all she would have to do is witness a rape.” At another point, she casually says, “he was going to die anyway,” when talking about locking up the victim in the trunk where he was eventually found dead.
Still, it reeks of the kind of armchair analysis that professionals abhor. Donna has never been diagnosed as a psychopath, and plucking a description from a 20-year-old profile to characterize her as such is irresponsible journalism at best. It also does so without any reference to its target’s past. While the author concedes that Hylton “was abused,” she does not include any of the traumatic childhood events that are the centerpiece of her source material. The prison reform advocate relates being moved from physical abuse at the hands of her birth mother to sexual abuse at the hands of her adoptive father before completely losing hope and running away from home at the age of 13.
“I thought to myself, ‘My father is right. Nobody will ever love me for me. I’m no good for anything but sex.’ After that I was numb. I gave up on everybody, including myself. I remember looking in the bathroom mirror at school and seeing my father’s face, and screaming, ‘Leave me alone!’ I tried to smash the window; he seemed to be right there in the window. It was like he was chasing me or something.”
In addition to cherry-picking the facts about her case, these critics are also distorting the crux of Donna’s activism. Hylton doesn’t argue that her crimes weren’t horrific, but rather that the way her case was observed — both in the media and in court — reflected a racial and gender bias that resulted in a harsh sentence of 27 years for Hylton despite the fact that she was only 20 years old when the crimes were committed and that she appeared to be an accessory to the crimes. To ignore her history of abuse and the nearly three decades she spent in prison brushes over the entire point of her speech at the Women’s March.
“Five years ago, I was released from prison after serving 27 years. … And when I walked out those gates of prison, I made a promise to those women who are our friends, our neighbors, our sisters that I would do all that I could do to tell their story, to tell their narratives and to tell their truth. So today in solidarity as inmate 86G0206, I call into this moment, into this movement … all of those women who have been overlooked, marginalized, sexualized, dehumanized and silenced. Today we march in solidarity to be their voice. We are their voice.”
It’s not the only manipulative technique used in the attack pieces. They all make sure to push the fact that her victim was supposedly gay to the top, despite the fact that the evidence they use for his alleged homosexuality are Donna’s own words, saying that he “wiggled” when they shoved a rod up his rectum. One could argue that these editorial decisions reveal a concentrated effort to highlight the supposed hypocrisy of the Women’s March, reminiscent of linking Hillary Clinton to Saudi Arabian governments and their draconian anti-LGBT laws. Can’t you see, silly gays, the article insinuates, liberals only care about you when it’s convenient.
The crimes of Donna Hylton are shocking, and her speech at the Women’s March was certainly risky considering how eager Republicans were to discredit the protest. But those willing to use her as a banner of liberal hypocrisy should at least be aware of what her activism actually stands for, and also of the way the facts have been manipulated to fit the conservative media’s criticism of her presence at the anti-Trump movement. A child sex abuse victim-turned-murder accomplice telling her story is not the same as inviting the rants of a psychopath, nor does it make everyone else in attendance one either.
[Featured Image by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images]