“Are you, like, serious?” exclaims the preppily dressed Stacey High. “have you ever gotten a good look at her? Marie is, like, gorgeous! In high school she was one of the most mature girls I had ever met. I thought, ‘Wow, if I hang around her, she’ll keep me motivated, help me act a little more serious.’”
Stacey stares at a prom photograph of her and Marie Robards, her best friend during her senior year in high school. “We used to do everything together. I mean, everything. And then I find out that she has gone off and poisoned her dad for this totally crazy reason. I mean, how weird is that?”
It is the kind of murder story That fascinates people because it is filled with such familiar, seemingly innocent characters: teenage girls coming of age in the suburbs, their lives driven by adolescent insecurities, daydreams, and startlingly mercurial moods. In February 1993 Marie Robards, a tall, striking Fort Worth 16-year-old, pulled off what a prosecutor called the perfect crime, murdering her 38-year-old father, who was divorced from her mother, by slipping a spoonful of the poisonous chemical barium acetate into the refried beans of the take-out Mexican food he was eating one evening. The autopsy found nothing unusual. To detect certain poisons and less common chemicals such as barium acetate, a specialized $150,000 machine was required, which the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office did not own. The coroner attributed Robards’ death to a heart attack.
For nearly a year, Marie told no one about the crime. She was an excellent student, reserved but polite, the kind of girl who never acted impulsively, never stayed out too late or had too much to drink at parties. She didn’t date much, but the boys couldn’t take their eyes off her long legs and deep brown eyes.
Then, one night in January 1994, during her senior year of high school in the Fort Worth suburb of Mansfield, Marie was studying Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Stacey, one of the school’s most popular girls. According to Stacey’s version of events (which Marie has never denied), Stacey turned to her favorite part of the play: the soliloquy of Danish monarch Claudius, who poisoned his brother (Hamlet’s father) to gain the throne. In her most dramatic voice—which was only slightly affected by her Texas drawl—Stacey recited Claudius’ agonizing speech in which he wonders if he can ever repent: “My fault is past. But oh, what form of prayer/Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder?’/That cannot be, since I am still possessed/Of those effects for which I did the murder …”
“Isn’t that cool!” Stacey said. But when she looked across the table, Marie had turned pale and her hands were trembling.
“Stacey,” Marie asked, “do you think people can go through life without a conscience?”
Stacey answered, “Well, how about the kind of person who can look somebody in the eye and kill him in cold blood?”
Staring at Stacey, Marie got out of her chair, backed up to the wall, then collapsed to the floor and began to weep. “Marie, what’s the matter?” asked Stacey.
“Guess,” Marie whispered.
Stacey thought of the worst predicament that she could imagine a fellow seventeen-year-old girl could be in. “Oh, my God, are you pregnant?”
“You wrecked your grandparents’ car?”
Marie shook her head no.
Almost jokingly, Stacey asked, “Well, um, you didn’t kill somebody, did you?”
Marie’s body heaved with sobs. “My father,” she said. “I poisoned him.”
For weeks Stacey tried to keep Marie’s story a secret. “When you’re in high school, it’s, like, so important not to betray your best friends,” Stacey later told me. But tormented by guilt and bothered by the idea that Marie might be a far different girl from the one she knew, Stacey eventually contacted the police. Eight months later, after barium tests were run, Fort Worth police officers arrived in Austin, where Marie was a freshman at the University of Texas, still lovely, still studious, still seeming so harmless. At the Austin police station, she quickly admitted to the killing. As if hoping this pale, gentle teenager would explain away her crime, a detective asked her over and over if she had been abused by her father. “No, sir,” Marie said. The detective asked if Steven Robards had ever done anything to her that he shouldn’t have done. “No, sir,” Marie said.
Then why, asked the detective during the tape-recorded interview, did she put the barium acetate in the refried beans?
“Because it was the only way I could go back home,” Marie said.
“Who did you want to go back home to?” the detective asked.
“My mom,” Marie said in a soft, distraught voice. “I wanted to be with my mom.” Marie’s mother, Beth Burroughs, a woman as tall and beautiful as Marie, had remarried and was living in Granbury, outside Fort Worth. In a confession that Marie typed herself on a word processor at the police station (in her senior year of high school, Marie had won her district’s University Interscholastic League competition in keyboarding), she wrote, “I just wanted to be with my mom so bad that I would do anything to be with her.”
The reactions to Marie’s arrest in October 1994 ranged from sheer disgust to muddled sympathy. Mitch Poe, the young Tarrant County prosecutor who would try the murder case, called her “society’s worst nightmare: a girl who kills her dad.” Co-prosecutor Fred Rabalais, Jr., described her as “a remorseless predator,” another example of the growing number of teenagers who use violence to solve their problems. But others saw her as Texas’ Lizzie Borden, who despite her gruesome act seemed to be such a pleasant and proper girl. “I know this girl does not have a criminal mind,” said Steven Robards’ father, Jim, who was close to Marie. “For reasons only she will know, she committed this onetime act. But I know that’s all it was—a onetime act. I have to say, I don’t understand what good a penitentiary sentence will