The protections of womanhood?
Although ladies at the moment make up the quickest rising incarcerated inhabitants, they comprise slightly below 2% of these on demise row regardless of committing 10% of murders nationwide. Whereas not everybody convicted of homicides can be sentenced to demise—in reality, nationally, the demise sentence price is somewhat over 2%—males convicted of homicide are way more more likely to be executed than ladies. One motive students and authorized professionals provide for this sentencing disparity is that many homicides dedicated by ladies are associated to intimate associate violence, which jurors might take into account “crimes of ardour,” or one-time offenses that may not pose the type of ongoing risk to public security that the demise penalty purportedly diminishes. Additional, homicides dedicated by ladies are typically absent of sure “aggravating components,” like housebreaking, rape, kidnapping, or a sufferer who’s a public official or legislation enforcement officer. These aggravating components are what qualify a murder for capital punishment.
However past the specifics of the murders, students additionally posit that juries and judges could also be extra hesitant to execute ladies due to paternalistic concepts and notions of chivalry. For prosecutors searching for the demise penalty in instances with ladies defendants, the duty typically hasn’t been to dismantle the concept ladies are in want of protection—however as a substitute to argue that these defendants aren’t female in any respect, and that their actions each earlier than and in the course of the crime in query have forfeited them the safety of womanhood.
Dr. Mary Atwell, professor emeritus of felony justice at Radford College and skilled on the demise penalty, says that in capital instances involving ladies defendants, prosecutors try to current these womens’ deviation from gender stereotypes as unofficial aggravating components. In 2007, Atwell revealed Wretched Sisters, a ebook analyzing the tales of 11 ladies executed by the state between 1976 and 2007. In her analysis, she discovered this try to condemn ladies for his or her failure to stick to particular notions of femininity to be a standard characteristic within the instances she reviewed.
“In a demise penalty case, the legislation permits sure sorts of aggravating components to make a case eligible for execution and to steer the jury that they need to vote to execute someone,” mentioned Atwell in an interview with Prism. “In these instances, these components don’t embrace being a nasty mom, or not caring for your kids or not preserving your home clear or being untrue to your husband or any of these sorts of issues, which got here up repeatedly within the instances that I checked out. It is actually that subject that I feel is probably the most troubling, and it is persistent.”
‘She retains a dirty residence’
Whereas the sample of presenting ladies defendants as unfeminine is pervasive, the methods these depictions are crafted range relying on every case. Defendants may be offered as promiscuous and hypersexual, unhealthy moms and unhealthy wives, or hypermasculine, notably if they’re in same-sex relationships. For ladies of colour, notably Black ladies who’re already denied sure protections of womanhood, race may also complicate how their femininity is challenged throughout trial.
One of the crucial latest and notorious instances of condemnation by way of sexual historical past was that of Brenda Andrew, a 57-year-old girl at the moment on demise row in Oklahoma. In 2004, Andrew was convicted alongside her boyfriend James Pavatt for the 2001 homicide of her husband, Robert Andrew. Over the course of her trial, Brenda was depicted as promiscuous, a picture rigorously constructed by prosecutors utilizing decades-old diary entries from her husband worrying that she was having extramarital affairs, and testimony from buddies and previous lovers who had been requested in regards to the garments she would put on. Prosecutors even offered as proof lingerie that Brenda had packed for a visit to Mexico shortly after her husband’s homicide. This proof was suggestively offered at trial in the direction of the intention of depicting her as an untrue spouse and a nasty individual.
Castigating ladies for his or her sexual appetites is as widespread among the many prosecution as it’s in broader society, however that’s not the one means ladies defendants may be offered as deviating from female requirements. Prosecutors additionally capitalize on situations the place ladies accused of homicide seem to have strayed from their position as caretakers or nurturers. After all, this will happen most clearly in instances the place the victims of the murder are kids, as within the case of Christina Riggs, who was executed in 2000 for the homicide of her two younger kids. Nevertheless, this picture may also be conjured up in conditions the place a girl’s motherhood is totally irrelevant to the main points of the case. Lisa Montgomery, the 52-year-old girl at the moment on federal demise row and is scheduled to be executed in January, exemplifies this phenomenon. Prosecutors have repeatedly argued that Montgomery was an unfit mom, says Sandra Babcock, college director of the Cornell Middle on the Loss of life Penalty Worldwide and an lawyer at the moment representing Montgomery.
“On the sentencing section of her trial, her protection crew argued that she liked her kids, which is true and the prosecutor got here again and mentioned, ‘She loves her kids? Proper, she retains a dirty residence, she would not prepare dinner, she would not clear, she would not go to her kids’s video games,’” mentioned Babcock. “You by no means would hear that argument within the case of a person. And the stunning factor is that that is on the penalty section of a capital case. So that they’re making these arguments as a part of a rationale for why this girl ought to be exterminated from the human race.”
In instances the place a girl’s sufferer was male, she is commonly made out to be notably threatening due to her potential to overpower a person. Atwell has additionally cited how prosecutors try to depict queer defendants or ladies in same-sex relationships as hypermasculine and thus, unfit for the social protections provided to ladies.
Within the 1988 case of Wanda Jean Allen, a girl executed in 2001 for the homicide of Gloria Leathers, her associate on the time, prosecutors attempted to not solely dismiss proof that the connection between Allen and Leathers was a mutually abusive one, however additionally they described Allen as “the person” within the relationship. Related ways emerged within the case of Aileen Wournos, maybe one of the vital notorious ladies ever executed by the state.
Apparently, a lot of Wuornos’ case consists of traits which can be extra typical of capital crimes: Wuornos dedicated a collection of homicides and her victims had been typically strangers, however prosecutors in her case nonetheless labored to focus on Wuornos’ sexual orientation to the jury. Actually, prosecutors referred to Wuornos as a “lesbian whose hatred of males induced her to homicide time and again.”
Condemnation by clickbait
Like within the case of Mary Rogers, the media routinely amplifies these depictions of girls defendants, extending their attain far past the courtroom. Information protection has not simply reasserted how these ladies might have transgressed typical notions of femininity, however reporters and have additionally used monikers like “black widow,” “damsel of demise,” “blonde bandit,” and “set off girl” to villainize these defendants in notably gendered methods. Atwell says this pattern is particularly prevalent in native information the place the crimes hit nearer to residence and result in extra constant and unfavorable protection of capital instances.
This urge for food for extra salacious media portrayals of girls defendants in capital instances—notably as a consequence of their infrequency—can really boomerang again into the courtroom and affect case outcomes.
In her evaluate of instances involving executed ladies, Atwell discovered that three defendants—Judias Buenoano, Betty Lou Beets, and Aileen Wuornos—all had legal professionals who had been actively searching for ebook offers in regards to the instances in the course of the trial. Like many different defendants in capital instances, these ladies and their households couldn’t afford high quality, sufficient authorized illustration. Attorneys for Buenoano, Beets, and Wuornos provided to signify them in change for signing away the rights to their tales. Not solely did these attorneys present inadequate defenses—Steven Glazer, who represented Wuornos, later admitted he knew nothing about capital legislation—however the need to promote probably the most salacious story potential would seemingly work against the defense team’s willingness to painting their very own consumer favorably.
In a 1991 affidavit, Robert Miller, a pal and colleague of E. Ray Andrews, the unique protection lawyer for Betty Lou Beets, shared that Andrews typically bragged in regards to the cash he would make from Beets’ story.
“He mentioned how he was going to get wealthy on all this and the case was going to be the largest factor that ever occurred to him, and whatnot. He mentioned the case was going to show into a giant film and he had all of the rights to it,” mentioned Miller. “It was one thing he talked about fairly typically and you possibly can inform he was relying on these rights for some huge cash.”
Buenoano, Beets, and Wuornos had been executed in 1998, 2000, and 2002, respectively.
In the identical means that the crimes dedicated by ladies on demise row have to be thought of within the context of broader methods of patriarchy, depictions of girls defendants within the courtroom and within the media even have roots in sexist concepts and biases that may be each overt and implicit.
As reported by Prism, ladies defendants in capital instances already expertise unpredictability with regards to how their histories of abuse may be handled in the course of the sentencing section of their trials. Essential proof that displays their previous trauma is commonly not offered in any respect and when it’s it may be ignored or downplayed by the prosecution. Equally, gender stereotypes round how a girl must behave and the way she deserves to be handled can present up in trials with various outcomes. The notion of girls as being weaker and needing safety from the horrors of execution partially works to maintain ladies off demise row however any deviation from those self same stereotypes can lead ladies to be judged much more harshly and to be met with demise in instances that in any other case would by no means have garnered such a sentence.
This story is a part of Prism’s collection on ladies and the demise penalty in america. Click on here to learn half one on Lisa Montgomery and the widespread historical past of gendered abuse many ladies on demise row share. Subsequent week, we’ll discover the intersections of race and gender on demise row, specializing in the experiences of girls of colour who’ve been sentenced to execution.
Tamar Sarai Davis is Prism’s felony justice employees reporter. Observe her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.
Prism is a BIPOC-led nonprofit information outlet that facilities the folks, locations and points at the moment underreported by our nationwide media. Via our authentic reporting, evaluation, and commentary, we problem dominant, poisonous narratives perpetuated by the mainstream press and work to construct a full and correct report of what’s occurring in our democracy. Observe us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.