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September 20, 2018

"Judged for More Than Her Crime: A Global Overview of Women Facing the Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this new report from the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. Here are excerpts from its executive summary:

We estimate that at least 500 women are currently on death rows around the world. While exact figures are impossible to obtain, we further estimate that over 100 women have been executed in the last ten years — and potentially hundreds more.  The number of women facing execution is not dramatically different from the number of juveniles currently on death row, but the latter have received a great deal more attention from international human rights bodies, national courts, scholars, and advocates.

This report aims to shed light on this much-neglected population.  Few researchers have sought to obtain information about the crimes for which women have been sentenced to death, the circumstances of their lives before their convictions, and the conditions under which they are detained on death row.  As a result, there is little empirical data about women on death row, which impedes advocates from understanding patterns in capital sentencing and the operation of gender bias in the criminal legal system.  To the extent that scholars have focused on women on death row, they have concluded that they are beneficiaries of gender bias that operates in their favor. While it is undeniable that women are protected from execution under certain circumstances (particularly mothers of infants and young children) and that women sometimes benefit from more lenient sentencing, those that are sentenced to death are subjected to multiple forms of gender bias.

Most women have been sentenced to death for the crime of murder, often in relation to the killing of family members in a context of gender-based violence.  Others have been sentenced to death for drug offenses, terrorism, adultery, witchcraft, and blasphemy, among other offenses. Although they represent a tiny minority of all prisoners sentenced to death, their cases are emblematic of systemic failings in the application of capital punishment....

Our research also indicates that women who are seen as violating entrenched norms of gender behavior are more likely to receive the death penalty. In several cases documented in this report, women facing the death penalty have been cast as the “femme fatale,” the “child murderer,” or the “witch.”  The case of Brenda Andrew in the United States is illustrative. In her capital trial, the prosecution aired details of her sexual history under the guise of establishing her motive to kill her husband.  The jury was allowed to hear about Brenda’s alleged extramarital affairs from years before the murder, as well as details about outfits she wore.  The trial court also permitted the prosecutor to show the underwear found in the suitcase in her possession after she fled to Mexico, because it showed that she was not behaving as “a grieving widow, but as a free fugitive living large on a Mexico beach.”  As one Justice of the Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma noted, Brenda was put on trial not only for the murder of her husband but for being “a bad wife, a bad mother, and a bad woman.”...

Our country profiles aim to provide a snapshot of women facing the death penalty in several major regions of the world.  The stories of women on death row provide anecdotal evidence of the particular forms of oppression and inhumane treatment documented in this report.  It is our hope that this initial publication, the first of its kind, will inspire the international community to pay greater attention to the troubling plight of women on death row worldwide.

September 20, 2018 at 12:20 AM | Permalink

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