Why would Debra Newell (Connie Britton) take John Meehan (Eric Bana) back, after discovering — with tangible evidence — that he's a no-good, lying scoundrel? The fourth episode of Dirty John provides the psychological insights necessary for understanding Newell's decision. After seeing how her family responded to a traumatic incident in their past, we learn a lot about Debra Newell. Namely, that she's been raised to forgive, above all.
On March 8, 1984, Newell's sister, Cindi, was shot by her husband, Billy Vickers, not long after she asked for a divorce. Unfortunately, Cindi's murder does not take place in a vacuum. Between the years of 1980 and 2008, nearly 1 out of 5 murder victims were killed by an intimate partner. Research shows that globally, women are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than anyone else. What's especially unusual, in Cindi's case, was her family's response.
Cindi married Vickers, a supermarket manager, when she was still a teenager. They had two sons together (in the show, their son who clashes with John Meehan is named Toby; in real life, he's named Shad). After 14 years together, Cindi was deeply unhappy with her possessive, controlling husband. She expressed that unhappiness to her mother, Arlane (played by Jean Smart in the show), who dismissed her. Cindi eventually started seeing a professional football player whom she'd met in Palm Springs. She separated from Vickers.
Despite her mother's disapproval, Cindi went through with the divorce proceedings. She and Vickers sold their Garden Grove, CA home. The day before she died, she opened up her own bank account and was moving forward with independent life. On March 8, Cindi was back in the house finishing up paperwork when Vickers approached, holding a handgun he had borrowed from a friend. Tragically, Vickers shot Cindi in the back of the neck. He then shot himself, but survived the self-inflicted wound.
For this, Vickers spent less than three years in prison. How is that possible? It all comes down to Cindi's family's involvement in the trial — and their swaying of the jury.
On April 26, 1984, Vickers appeared at his preliminary trial. He was charged with murder in the first degree. During the proceedings, Arlane Hart took the witness stand for five hours in Vickers' defense. In the podcast Dirty John, Hart recalls saying, "I not only like Billy, I love Billy. I knew him before, I know him now. I hated what he did, hated absolutely; he killed our daughter, but I still love Billy." During her testimony, Hart created a skewed portrait of Cindi and Billy's marriage, saying that Cindi had mistreated her husband, and not the other way around. Essentially, Hart said, Vickers was not in his right mind.
According to Hart, the jury was moved to tears. They found Vickers not guilty of murder, but couldn't decide on the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter. The judge declared a mistrial in February 1985. Finally, Vickers pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for a five-year sentence. He was released after serving two years and nine months.
After that, Vickers reentered family life. In the podcast, Newell also says Vickers attended family parties and events. She was always unable to speak to him, though her parents could. This comes through in Dirty John, when Vickers briefly appears at the church Newell attends with her mother. Arlene greets him after the service, but Newell lags behind and then leaves. "That's my brother-in-law. Ex brother-in-law," she explains to John.
How were Newell's parents able to forgive Vickers? "The way I view it is my parents were raised and their whole life was being a Christ-like Christian. And in their roles in the church, being the example, I think that that was the only way that they knew how to be," Newell attempts by way of explanation in the podcast Dirty John.
Newell hasn't achieved the same degree of forgiveness as her mother — with Vickers, that is. Instead, Newell's (perhaps inherited) propensity to forgive manifests itself with her husband, John.
After speaking to her mother's relationship with Vickers, Newell tried to explain her own capacity to forgive Meehan. "I think that I fell love and was willing to believe what he was telling me. Wanted to believe what he was telling me, I guess. I’ll never understand why, but I always do see the great in, I think, everyone."
In future episodes of the show, we'll see the dire repercussions of her decision to show mercy toward John Meehan.