Executing Women In the USAJanuary 30, 2013
Very few, or at least relatively few, women have been executed in the United States. Kimberly McCarthy would have been the 13th woman put to death since reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976, had her execution not been delayed at the last minute to look into the question of improper jury selection at her trial. An African American woman, McCarthy was sentenced to die by a Dallas, TX jury that was predominantly (11-1) white.
So as it stand now, out of 1,321 executions in the U.S. only 12 (less than 1%) have been women. Interestingly, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, while women are responsible for roughly 10% of murders, they receive only 2.1% of death sentences and make up only 1.8% of current death row residents, but have received over 4% of clemencies granted. Perhaps this represents yet another way the death penalty is disproportionately applied.
Anyway, as a group that appears more likely to find their way out of the capital punishment system than their male counterparts, one would expect that all the women who actually do get executed would be the absolute “worst of the worst.” One would be wrong. For example:
- Three of the women executed – Wanda Jean Allen, Aileen Wuornos, and Teresa Lewis – suffered from serious mental disabilities. Teresa Lewis, despite her low IQ and dependency disorder, was executed as the mastermind of a murder for hire.
- Both Christina Riggs and Lynda Lyon Block assisted in their own execution, Riggs by refusing to allow her lawyers to mount a defense, and Block by serving as her own lawyer and giving up her appeals for reasons connected to her political beliefs.
- Two others – Velma Barfield and Karla Faye Tucker – inspired calls for clemency from highly influential religious figures like Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, and Pope John Paul II.
- Like Teresa Lewis, Marlyn Plantz was executed for conspiring in a murder committed by someone else. She was also executed despite the involvement in her case of the notorious Joyce Gilchrist, who was found to have “grossly mismanaged” the forensics lab where she worked.
- Frances Newton died professing her innocence. Retesting of evidence that might have bolstered her claim could not be carried out because the state had mishandled and contaminated the evidence.
The issues in these cases are the same ones we see regularly in the cases of men who are put to death. Executions routinely take place despite a prisoner’s genuine remorse or mental disability, despite doubts created by prosecutorial misbehavior or the prisoner’s “volunteering” for death, and despite unresolved claims of innocence.
Executions of women in the U.S. may be rare; but the flaws in their cases are all too common.