Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Death, but Is It Murder? the Role of Stereotypes and Cultural Perceptions in the Wrongful Convictions of Women

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Death, but Is It Murder? the Role of Stereotypes and Cultural Perceptions in the Wrongful Convictions of Women

Article excerpt


Six days after her three-year-old son died in a house fire, Kristine Bunch was arrested for starting the fire and intentionally killing him. (1) Bunch spent seventeen years in prison after being convicted of murder and arson under the theory she locked the child in a bedroom and lit the room on fire. (2) Tragically, evidence eventually showed there was no arson and Bunch was innocent. (3) After Sabrina Butler spent more than five years on death row in Mississippi, she also was found innocent of killing her son, who actually died from a genetic medical condition. (4) Before she was exonerated in 2008, Audrey Edmunds spent eleven years in prison after the death of a seven-month-old baby in her care. (5) Edmunds's case was one of the first to be reversed based on the arguably questionable science behind shaken baby syndrome, after experts testified that no evidence supported the State's theory that she shook the baby. (6)

As with many wrongfully convicted women, these women became suspects because they were mothers or caregivers. Also, like most wrongfully convicted women, these women were traumatized and lost years of their lives over "crimes" which, evidence has shown, did not occur. Consider that sixty-four percent of exonerated women were wrongfully convicted even though no crime had occurred. (7) In contrast, 23.2% of exonerated men were wrongfully convicted for crimes that never happened. (8) That disparity is a clear indication that something different happens in the wrongful convictions of women than when men are wrongfully convicted. The differences between the wrongful convictions of men and the wrongful convictions of women warrant serious study.


This article will highlight characteristics of women who have been wrongfully convicted of harming or killing children, especially when no crime has occurred. The article discusses how stereotypes play a unique role in those wrongful convictions. Specifically, we will examine how stereotypes and the cultural perception of women as nurturers, mothers, and protectors of children likely contribute to the wrongful convictions of women.

In Part III, we will provide general information and statistics related to women's wrongful convictions. Part IV will discuss how stereotypes may cause these convictions. In Part V, we will discuss the types of circumstances that lead to women being erroneously charged with and convicted of crimes that never occurred. Part VI will address how stereotypes in no-crime cases make the wrongful convictions of women particularly complex to resolve. In conclusion, the article will promote further study of the wrongful convictions of women and make policy recommendations to reduce those wrongful convictions.


A. Relevant Definitions

Wrongful convictions scholars utilize different terms to refer to and define the terms "exonerations" and "exonerees." For example, Huff and colleagues describe wrongfully convicted individuals as "convicted innocents," and define that term as "people who have been arrested on criminal charges ... who have either pleaded guilty to the charge or have been tried and found guilty; and who, notwithstanding plea or verdict, are in fact innocent." (9) These authors exclude from their focus individuals who were held "for considerable periods of time" but had the charges dropped before trial because they were actually innocent; however, they still consider those individuals "convicted innocents." (10) In contrast, Samuel Gross, editor and cofounder of the National Registry of Exonerations (National Registry), and a leading scholar in the field, defines exoneration as "an official act declaring a defendant not guilty of a crime for which he or she had previously been convicted," thereby making the defendant an "exoneree." (11) Gross considers exonerations to result from four sources: (1) pardons or similar executive actions which freed prisoners based on actual innocence, (2) convictions vacated after new evidence of innocence emerged, (3) acquittals in retrials granted on the basis that the defendant was not involved in the crime, and (4) posthumous acknowledgements that a person was actually innocent. …

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