Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Rare and Inconsistent: The Death Penalty for Women

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Rare and Inconsistent: The Death Penalty for Women

Article excerpt

There is also overwhelming evidence that the death penalty is employed against men and not women ...

It is difficult to understand why women have received such favored treatment since the purposes allegedly served by capital punishment seemingly are equally applicable to both sexes. (1)


Picture in your mind a condemned murderer being sentenced to death, eating a last meal, or trudging ever-so-reluctantly into the execution chamber. In your mind's eye, do you see this wretched creature as a woman? Most of us do not, given that over ninety-nine percent of the people executed in the United States are men. (2) Female offenders, both girls and women, (3) are so seldom found on our death rows that, once condemned, they may be ignored and forgotten. (4)

We are occasionally made aware of women put to death through media coverage of high profile executions. A recent case with front-page national coverage was that of Karla Faye Tucker, executed in Texas on February 3, 1998. (5) Tucker caught the attention of the popular media in part because of the grisly nature of her crime (murder by pickax) and partly because she was a pretty, photogenic white woman. (6) Indeed, a new play, Karla, based on Tucker's crime, trial, and execution, opened in New York in October 2005. (7) An example of an earlier but similarly famous case was that of Ruth Brown Snyder, who was executed in New York on January 12, 1928. (8) An attending journalist surreptitiously photographed Snyder's execution in New York's electric chair, and that dramatic photograph appeared the next morning on the front page of the newspaper, destined to be reprinted many times subsequently. (9) Journalistic descriptions of collections of numerous cases also abound, often tending to exploit them with lurid details. (10)

We also have riveting films based on this theme. Some are built around real women's cases. The Florida case of Aileen Wuornos, executed on October 9, 2002, spawned several films. The best known was a semi-fictionalized account entitled Monster, (11) released in 2003 and starring Charlize Theron, a role for which Theron received both a Golden Globe and Oscar. (12) The Wuornos case had been the basis for earlier documentary films based upon her actual life. (13) Nearly half a century ago, the 1958 film I Want to Live provided a reasonably accurate portrayal of the actual case of Barbara Graham, executed in California on June 6, 1955. (14) In a precursor to Theron's recognition for her portrayal of Wuornos, actress Susan Hayward also won both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for her portrayal of Graham. (15) Other films portray fictionalized women under sentences of death. One such example, Last Dance, (16) released in 1996, starred Sharon Stone as a woman sentenced to death and actually executed. (17) Based on a composite of several cases both real and fictional, Stone portrayed a condemned woman who evolves from a tough, foul-mouthed killer into a nurturing big sister and would-be lover before being executed. (18)

But what of the rest of the women sentenced to death in the real world and, in some cases, actually executed? Who were they, and why were these extremely rare cases singled out to receive this ultimate punishment? Why are such women so commonly condemned but ignored by our death penalty system, by scholarly research on crime and the death penalty, and to some degree by the popular media? These questions have been asked by previous authors: "Few though their numbers may be, they are on death row, and for the most part terribly isolated, invisible, and alone." (19) A recent investigative report labels them "The Forgotten Population." (20) Apparently a similar tendency to ignore such cases is true in Britain as well, where "their cases remain almost totally unknown." (21)

Previous studies of the national landscape around the death penalty for women have identified and analyzed past themes and issues. …

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