For Black ladies, the protections of womanhood aren’t any bar to execution


Who will get to be a ‘girl’? 

This September, the Loss of life Penalty Data Heart (DPIC) launched Enduring Injustice, a report taking a look at racial discrimination in capital sentencing. The final time DPIC launched a report focusing solely on race and the demise penalty was in 1998. Ngozi Ndulue, director of analysis and particular tasks at DPIC and lead writer of Enduring Injustice, says that whereas many traits have remained stagnant in these previous 22 years, this new report seeks to look at how lynching, mob violence, and different types of racial terror proceed to tell using capital punishment at present.

“The historic context is essential as a result of after we actually look again, we see that racial bias and racial injustice has been intertwined with using the demise penalty for the reason that colonial period in the USA the place throughout slavery, the demise penalty was used in a different way relying on race,” mentioned Ndulue in an interview with Prism. “There have been statutes that enable for the demise penalty for enslaved individuals and never for white individuals, and even within the North, in non-slave states, there was nonetheless disproportionate use of the demise penalty in opposition to Black individuals.”

Enslaved ladies weren’t exempt from capital punishment. In reality, based on Ndulue, there have been greater than 700 executions of girls and ladies for the reason that earliest days of the colonial period, and greater than 400 of these ladies and ladies had been Black. Enslaved ladies had been typically tried and convicted of murders that resulted from their shut proximity to slave-owning households, reminiscent of meals poisoning or arson. In different capital instances, enslaved ladies defendants killed in self-defense, typically in response to the continued sexual violence they endured by the hands of enslavers.

A case from 1855 now often known as Missouri v. Celia, a Slave, exhibits how capital punishment was employed in opposition to enslaved ladies who fought again. Celia, an enslaved girl in Callaway County, Missouri, had been raped a number of instances by her slave grasp, Robert Newsom. One evening when Newsom entered her cabin and superior upon her, Celia struck him over the pinnacle with a picket chair. Upon realizing he had died, Celia tried to eliminate his physique by burning his corpse in her fire. On the time, Missouri legislation held that it was against the law “to take any girl unlawfully in opposition to her will and by pressure,” which meant that killing in self-defense in opposition to tried rape was justified and legally permissible. Celia’s protection crew requested that the jury be instructed to incorporate enslaved ladies underneath the protections of this clause, however the decide refused. On December 21, 1855, Celia was executed by hanging. As scholar Saidiya Hartman writes in her 1990 article Seduction and the Ruses of Energy, Celia’s case illustrates how “the enslaved may neither give nor refuse consent, nor provide cheap resistance, but they had been criminally accountable and liable.”

We will additionally look to far more moderen instances to see how Black ladies defendants proceed to be perceived as felony on account of their race and denied the “protections of womanhood.” Within the case of Wanda Jean Allen, a Black girl executed in 2001 for the homicide of her companion Gloria Leathers, prosecutors performed on stereotypes associated to each her sexual orientation in addition to her race. As reported by Prism, ladies defendants in same-sex relationships are sometimes solid as hypermasculine—a pattern noticed in Allen’s case when the prosecution described her because the “man” in her relationship. Nonetheless, authorized students assert that Allen’s id as a Black girl additional compounded the unfavorable stereotypes used in opposition to her. At trial, prosecutors in her case offered to the jury a card that Allen had given to Leathers studying, “I’m going to kill one thing,” together with a threatening message. Whereas the textual content alone was related to the case, advocates argue that the choice to point out the cardboard itself—which had an image of a gorilla on its entrance—labored towards the prosecution’s goal of enjoying off racial stereotypes. Whereas displaying the cardboard to the jury, prosecutors mentioned “that’s Wanda Jean Allen in a nutshell.”  

Dr. Mary Atwell, professor emeritus of felony justice at Radford College, notes that in instances with Black ladies, racial overtones are added onto the tropes already used in opposition to ladies defendants in capital instances. Prosecutors can play off of the probability that jurors would possibly already view Black ladies as unhealthy moms, hypersexual, or hypermasculine. Thus, whereas Atwell says that using racist tropes is “by no means as overt with these ladies as it might have been in some instances with Black male defendants and white feminine victims,” the technique continues to be efficient.

Ndulue additionally cites the instances of Marissa Alexander and Cyntoia Brown as being notably illustrative of the enduring exclusion of Black ladies defendants from the leniency typically impressed by womanhood. In 2010, Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in jail for firing a non-lethal warning shot in opposition to her abusive husband. In 2014, Alexander took a plea deal and was lastly launched after serving three years in jail and two years on dwelling detention. In 2004, on the age of 16, Brown was convicted of murdering a person who had solicited her for intercourse. The homicide, Brown and her advocates preserve, was an act of self-defense, and but she was sentenced to life in jail and served 15 years earlier than being granted clemency in 2019. Whereas Alexander and Brown didn’t face execution, each instances had been homicides and their initially harsh sentences underscore how the authorized system has responded to Black ladies who attempt to defend themselves in opposition to violence since Celia’s time.

“These two are tales the place ultimately there was success in having public assist across the fuller story of who these ladies had been and what that they had survived, however in neither of them was that sufficient to persuade juries and judges till after each had been sentenced,” mentioned Ndulue. “Each [women] have frolicked in jail, so I believe that it is telling that even in these what you’ll name ‘success tales’ in [terms of] having the ability to have most of the people perceive their lives and circumstances and the impact that violence and exploitation had on the crimes that they had been accused of committing—the success of telling that story was after many, many steps down the highway.”

Violence throughout and inside racial traces

If race undermines the protections and advantages of womanhood for Black ladies defendants, then how would possibly their gender complicate well-known traits and patterns because it pertains to race and the demise penalty?

Based on Enduring Injustice, the race of 1’s sufferer is very determinant of whether or not an individual will likely be sentenced to demise—maybe extra determinant than the race of the defendant herself. In an evaluation of executions for interracial murders since 1976, the report authors discovered that simply 21 white defendants have been sentenced to demise for the homicide of a Black particular person, whereas a staggering 295 Black defendants have been sentenced to demise for the homicide of a white particular person.

Students and researchers have lengthy asserted that that is rooted within the greater worth positioned on white lives, and a specific disdain for Black individuals who transgress racial hierarchies by exerting bodily energy over a white particular person. Nonetheless, given that girls defendants in murder instances usually know their sufferer and that these instances are sometimes rooted in intimate companion violence—which is basically intraracial—it raises questions of whether or not capital instances involving Black ladies would observe related patterns.

Certainly, three of the 4 Black ladies executed since 1976 have had Black victims. Of the 12 Black ladies at the moment on demise row, 5 had Black victims, six had white victims, and one had a non-Black sufferer of coloration.

Whereas this aligns with traits noticed with Black males on demise row, the place over half of their instances contain a white sufferer, Ndulue says that the numbers of Black ladies on demise row alone are so small that it may be troublesome to make statistically vital claims about what this would possibly imply. Ndulue additionally reminds us that homicides are extra regularly intraracial than the general public is led to consider.

Womanhood, race, and reprieve

Whereas Black ladies are overwhelmingly overrepresented on demise row, oddly, higher consciousness of racial disparities in capital sentences appears to make Black ladies defendants extra prone to have their sentences commuted than white ladies—although these numbers are nonetheless small. In a 2008 examine on ladies, race, and the demise penalty, researchers Harry and Sheila Greenlee analyzed cases of women on death row since 1973 and located that whereas Black and Indigenous ladies had been extra prone to be sentenced to demise row, additionally they had their sentences commuted or reversed at a better fee than white ladies. Once more, the variety of ladies on demise row is so small that it’s troublesome to make huge claims as to why this pattern emerges. Nonetheless, the convergence of clemency campaigns for ladies who’re survivors of home violence or childhood abuse and advocacy efforts highlighting racial bias in demise sentencing could extra regularly carry instances of girls of coloration to the eye of some governors.

Certainly, for the reason that reinstatement of the demise penalty in 1976, solely 12 ladies have been granted clemencies, and seven of those women have been Black. Some, reminiscent of Beatrice Lampkin, who was convicted of hiring successful man to homicide her husband, had skilled home violence by the hands of their companion. Different sentences, like these of Latasha Pulliam and Debra Brown, had been questioned after studying that the defendants had been intellectually disabled. All of those seven instances had been amongst mass clemencies granted by governors who had been involved about racial bias or unfairness throughout trials. In 1991, Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste granted clemency to eight people on demise row, citing a “disturbing racial sample” in demise sentencing within the state—4 of these clemency recipients had been Black ladies. In 2003, Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of all people on death row within the state. In a speech delivered at Northwestern College following his choice, Ryan defined that regardless of initially being a supporter of capital punishment, he had come to seek out that “our capital system is haunted by the demon of error, error in figuring out guilt, and error in figuring out who among the many responsible deserves to die.” Among the many info that helped him come to this choice was an investigative report from The Chicago Tribune that confirmed that over two-thirds of individuals on the state’s demise row had been African American. Ryan’s blanket commutation freed 167 individuals, amongst these had been three Black ladies and one Latina girl.

Clemency petitions that search to grant freedom to individuals in particular person instances whereas drawing public consciousness to the broader challenge of capital punishment typically level to racial disparities in sentencing. Whereas that public consciousness has labored to free a handful of Black ladies on demise row, there’s nonetheless extra work to do for these searching for to abolish the demise penalty in its entirety.

Advocates have additionally been making essential connections between the injustices that pervade capital sentencing and people of the felony authorized system at giant. There was progress on that entrance, Ndulue says, citing the California Racial Justice Act for instance. The invoice, which was signed this October by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, will prohibit the state from searching for a conviction or imposing a sentence “on the premise of race, ethnicity, or nationwide origin.” Whereas the invoice was initially conceived to simply give attention to the demise penalty, it’s now relevant to all felony instances.

“We will’t separate out the demise penalty into one small island, and I believe that additionally signifies that we should study extra in regards to the dynamics of girls and their expertise within the felony authorized system in non demise penalty areas,” mentioned Ndulue. “The variety of ladies lifers has gone up and I believe that it’s actually essential to consider what we are able to study from their expertise after we’re speaking about ladies of coloration who’re dealing with demise sentences.”

This story is a part of Prism’s series on ladies and the demise penalty in the USA. Click on here to learn half one on Lisa Montgomery and the frequent historical past of gendered abuse many ladies on demise row share, and here to learn half two on how ladies could be condemned partially for defying gender stereotypes. In subsequent week’s installment, we’ll uncover the tough situations ladies face whereas incarcerated on demise row.

Tamar Sarai Davis is Prism’s felony justice employees reporter. Comply with her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.

Prism is a BIPOC-led nonprofit information outlet that facilities the individuals, locations and points at the moment underreported by our nationwide media. By our authentic reporting, evaluation, and commentary, we problem dominant, poisonous narratives perpetuated by the mainstream press and work to construct a full and correct file of what’s occurring in our democracy. Comply with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.





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