Women and the Death Penalty in the United States, 1900-1998

By Kathleen A. O'Shea | Go to book overview

1
History and the Execution of Women

The calculated killing of a human being by the state involves, by its very nature, an absolute denial of the executed person's humanity. The vilest murder does not, in my view, release the state from constitutional restraint on the destruction of human dignity.

-- U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan

If the action of the death penalty is genuine "compassion" for both the victims and the accused it could be appropriate. But that takes a society without revenge.

-- JW, Foreman of a capital jury

Although only three women, Margie Velma Barfield in North Carolina, Karla Faye Tucker in Texas, and Judi Buenoano in Florida have been executed since the Supreme Court authorized executions in 1976, there is a historic precedent for executing women in the United States.

Since the first European settlers arrived in America the death penalty has been accepted as just punishment for women ( Baird & Rosenbaum, 1995). Capital punishment had long been the practice in England and throughout Europe. Gatrell ( 1994) and Linebaugh ( 1992) present numerous cases between 1770 and 1868 of women who were executed in England for things as minor as stealing a bolt of cloth. Examples include women like Mary Dutton, who was hanged in 1742 for stealing a watch and Elizabeth Fox who was hanged for stealing five Portuguese coins ( Linebaugh, 1992). Of Fox we are told "she walked the streets, robbed, stole, and took everything she could lay hold on, being one of the most scandalous creatures and notorious pickpockets in town" (140). Hannah Wilson, a vendor of peas and beans, was hanged at the age of 25 for stealing clothes, and Mary Standford was hanged for picking a pocket of a handkerchief and 4 guineas. Linebaugh ( 1992) lists 92 women hanged

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