Updated: May 25, 2020
When someone commits a crime, there’s a lot that goes into it. Most people don’t just wake up one day and say “I want to rob someone” or “I want to kill someone.” There’s almost always a buildup. Even if it is a snap decision, you can still often point to things in their past that might have lead to it. This is not to excuse anyone’s crimes, of course — at the end of the day, we’re all responsible for our own actions. But there is a lot of debate about how accountable certain people should be held for wrongdoing, and what elements of their past should be taken into consideration. Let’s talk about the case of Cindy White.
Sarah Isabel “Cindy” White was born around 1957 and grew up in Indiana. She was one of six children and her mother was an alcoholic. As a child, Cindy sought affection from her father and longed to be a daddy’s girl. But the attention she got from her father wasn’t the kind she wanted.
Cindy would later claim her father began sexually abusing her when she was about eight, and that it progressively got worse over the years. When she told her mother about the abuse, her mother simply told her not to be in the same room alone with her dad. In 1971, when Cindy would have been about 14, her father died — but the damage was already done.
At some point in her teens, Cindy was taken to a mental hospital for “involuntary paralysis” caused by emotional trauma. Even in the hospital, she never talked about the abuse she claimed to suffer. While she was in the hospital, her mother also died.
Around this time, she got to know the Roberson family. She met the family while on a paper route in her neighborhood, and used to play with their kids. Charles Roberson and his wife, Carole, had four children: 7-year-old Michael, 6-year-old Dale, 5-year-old Gary and 4-year-old Rita, or Sissy. When Cindy was released from the hospital in the fall of 1975, the Robersons invited her to be their live in nanny.
But what seemed like the perfect opportunity went south quickly. It wasn’t long before Charles Roberson began flirting with his new teenaged nanny. At first, Cindy was flattered and liked the positive attention. But according to her, it wasn’t long before the sexual abuse began.
As Cindy would later state, Charles would force her to watch porn and “satisfy himself,” in her words, as she watched. She also had to undress and engage in sex acts, including bestiality, in front of other people. At first, Cindy assumed Charles’s wife, Carole, didn’t know about this abuse. But when she walked in on them one day, Cindy knew based on her reaction that she was not only in the know but complicit.
In the winter of 1975, Cindy tried to leave, but Charles caught her and locked her in a bedroom. He then went to the garage, got one of their kittens, brought it back to Cindy and decapitated it, saying the same thing would happen to Cindy if she didn’t obey him.
A few days after Christmas of that year, Cindy’s grandmother’s house caught on fire. On New Year’s Eve, Cindy talked to her sister-in-law about the fire, and got an idea. If she set a fire in the Roberson house, she may be able to make the house “unlivable” (according to her) and finally escape.
She set the fire later that night, near the Christmas tree. She would later claim that she never meant for it to get out of hand or for anyone to get hurt. But once she realized it was spreading fast, she woke up the rest of the family and tried to help them escape. But the smoke was too thick for her to find them. She says she lost lost consciousness and later woke up on the ground outside. Another source said Cindy was seen leaving the back of the house screaming and had to be restrained so she wouldn’t go back in.
Cindy was taken to the hospital with burns on her arms and singed hair. One source said her injuries were minor, but others say she was actually in intensive care. She didn’t learn until after escaping that she was the only survivor — the entire Roberson family had died in the fire, probably within a few minutes of it starting.
Investigation into the fire began pretty quickly. At first, investigators thought it was accidental, caused by faulty Christmas tree lights. But then they realized the Christmas tree was actually flame proof, and a check of the house’s wiring, appliances, gas and furnace all showed everything working fine. When they found nude photos of Cindy in Charles’s wallet, as well as love letters by her to him, they started to get suspicious of her.
Charles Roberson’s body was found on living room couch, badly burned. Cindy had initially told investigators she was asleep on the living room couch when the fire started — but she escaped. This obviously created a hole in her story. Her pajamas were also made of a flammable material but didn’t catch on fire. The evidence of a potential affair, along with the physical evidence, led to Cindy’s arrest just a couple of months after the fire.
Cindy went on trial in the spring of 1976. Prosecutors claimed Cindy had been having an affair with Charles and set the fire in anger. As far as I could find, they never specified what she was angry about. I assume they wanted people to think Charles refused to leave his wife for her, but that’s just a guess.
In May 1976, Cindy White was convicted of arson and six counts of felony murder — though another source said “first degree murder by arson.” She was later given six life sentences, plus an additional 5 to 20 years for the arson.
After sentencing, she was taken to Indiana Women’s Prison, where she remains today. In a 2018 interview, she claimed she was 16 when she got to prison*, but most sources say she was 18. She also says she was the youngest offender in the prison at the time.
*posted July 26, 2018 — her segment starts at 21:40
There has been at least one appeal of Cindy’s case, but it was denied. A 1999 ruling determined she couldn’t be released on parole because inmates serving life at the time of her conviction weren’t eligible for parole. I believe this is a national thing and not exclusive to Indiana, but I could be wrong. She’s never been released, on parole or otherwise, and probably never will be.
So let’s talk about some of the controversy in this case. For starters, Cindy’s claims that she was abused, both by her dad and the Robersons. It was never brought up at trial — in fact, she never publicly mentioned any abuse until about 10 years after she was convicted. She later claimed she stayed silent about the abuse out of embarrassment, and that she decided to speak out when she did for her own healing as well as the possibility of helping someone else.
Like I mentioned earlier, Cindy initially told investigators she was asleep on the living room couch when the fire started. Today, she admits she started the fire, but says she never meant for anyone to die — especially not the Roberson children, who she loved like they were her own. She only set the fire in an attempt to escape.
According to Cindy’s lawyer, Charles Asher, the abuse “stunted her emotionally and affected her judgment and decision making.”
"She survived by denial, by keeping her mouth shut. She had learned what virtually all victims of extreme child abuse learn: Don't talk. Don't trust. Don't feel."
Asher also seems to think Cindy’s case would have turned out differently if it happened today. “There are a lot of things that we know today that we didn't know then. The psychological care would have been different, and her defense would have been significantly different."
There was never any sort of investigation into Cindy’s alleged abuse, since it wasn’t public knowledge at the time. Other than her own words and the hospital stay in the 1970’s, there’s not much evidence of it. Assuming it did happen, of course, it’s understandable why she would choose not to talk about it for several years afterward. I do wonder if things would have turned out differently had we known more about the abuse when Cindy went on trial. Though from what I’ve researched, talking about child abuse was much more taboo in the 1970’s than it is today.
In addition to all this, there’s a lot of debate today about life sentences for minors. According to most sources, Cindy was a legal adult when she was convicted, and probably when she set the fire. However, there are some elements of this argument that can still apply to her.
Multiple studies and sources say a person’s brain doesn’t stop developing until they’re about 25 — a stat you’ve probably heard before. According to an article on the University of Rochester’s website, teenagers think with the amygdala, which is the emotional part of the brain, whereas adults think with the prefrontal cortex, which is the rational part of the brain.
People opposed to life sentences for minors often point out difference between adult and child brains. They also say children have the capacity to grow and change, and have more time to do so than adults.
But, as with any controversy, there are two sides to the argument. According to its detractors, minors (or, in Cindy’s case, teenagers), knew exactly what they were doing when the committed the crime (usually murder) that earned them a life sentence. People have also said the criminal needs to be in jail for justice for their victims and/or to keep other potential victims safe.
One comment I found on a website called debate.org reads in part:
“The normal human brain doesn't stop completely developing until the age of 22. Does that mean that we should excuse anyone under the age of 22 of their crimes? I think not.”
I found this comment especially interesting. Whether you agree with it or not, it brings up an important question: If your brain doesn’t stop developing until you’re in your 20’s, at what age should we start holding people fully accountable for their actions? And, in addition to this, how much should their past, especially if they were abused, be factored into that sentence?
There is at least one petition to free Cindy White. Freya Ryan, who started the petition, says the goal is to “support her cause and bring justice to her name.” I’m not sure when it was started, but it still seems to be active, so go check if out if you like.
So that’s all I have for you today on Cindy White. This case did remind me a little bit of the Cameron Todd Willingham case, although there are some major differences. As always, I would love to know your thoughts on this case and life sentences for young offenders in the comments below.