Women on death row

By: Gina Spitz and Alice Kim

Women on death row face many of the same problems found in the cases of men condemned to death, according to a recently published American Civil Liberties Union report. The ACLU, along with several civil rights organizations, produced "The Forgotten Population: A Look at Death Row in the United States Through the Experiences of Women." Not surprisingly, the excellent study shows that women suffer from "inadequate defense counsel and official misconduct, and social problems suffered by defendants such as poverty, alcoholism and drug abuse." Moreover, according to the report, for both women and men, more than half of all death sentences involve serious mistakes.

This study is one of very few sources of information about women on death row. It looked at the lives of 66 women on death row, including the 10 women who were executed since 1976. One striking fact is that nearly two-thirds of women on death row were convicted of killing family members or people they knew. Government homicide statistics show that women who are in prison are more likely than men to have killed family members or people they know. In many of these cases, the women and their lawyers maintained that the real motive for the killing was the woman’s need to escape abuse. For example, Judy Haney spent eight years on death row for killing her husband before evidence was presented that she was a battered wife. She was then re-sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Her lawyer was so drunk at her trial that he was actually sent to jail for contempt.

Another striking fact is that at least half of all women sentenced to death reported that they had been victims of childhood abuse, partner abuse or both. Similarly, government statistics show that nearly half of all women in prisons or jails had been abused before being incarcerated.

Women on death row also face almost complete isolation. According to the report, "Because of their small numbers, women sentenced to death are often in effect sentenced to solitary confinement as well. Seven state’s death rows hold only one woman each. Many death-sentenced women have almost no interaction with other prisoners, and very limited interaction with other human beings."

Author Phyllis Chesler described the living conditions of Florida death row prisoner Aileen Wuornos--whose life was depicted in the 2003 movie Monster--like this: "[S]he spent long periods of time in solitary confinement, freezing and naked. She has been deprived of daylight and exercise and is often forbidden to phone her lawyer. Ms. Wuornos cannot hear or see very well, but her frequent requests for a hearing aid and glasses have all been denied, as has permission for her to see a gynecologist for her almost continual heavy bleeding. She has lost 40 pounds." Wuornos was executed in August 2002.

Since 1973, 148 women have been sentenced to death, and 10 women have been executed. Today, 50 women remain on death row across the U.S. Abolitionists and criminal justice activists must increase our attention to these women in our efforts to abolish the death penalty in the U.S.

To download the complete report, go to the ACLU Web site (www.aclu.org) and follow the links for "Death Penalty" and then "Women."