Women

New Podcast: Women and the Death Penalty, With Expert Guest Mary Atwell

"We live in a gendered society," says Dr. Mary Atwell (pictured), one of the nation’s foremost experts on women and capital punishment, and the men and women who go to death row are different. In the latest podcast episode of "Discussions with DPIC," commemorating Women's History Month, Dr. Atwell says why that is so. Dr. Atwell chose to write about women on death row because she "wanted to do something about capital punishment that was not just numbers, that was a human take on capital punishment.” In the podcast, DPIC staff members Anne Holsinger and Robin Konrad interview her about patterns in cases in which women have been sentenced to death, including the nature of the crimes, the defendants' histories of physical and sexual abuse and addiction, and prosecutor and media stereotyping of female capital defendants as violating gender norms. They also discuss how women are affected differently than men by systemic issues, such as inadequate defense and jury bias. "Women who have been sentenced to death are much more likely than the men who are sentenced to death to have committed a murder of an intimate person, rather than a stranger," Dr. Atwell says. She explains that, "for the state to put somebody to death in our name, we have to see them as ‘other’ in some way – ... and I think that’s even more true with a woman. You have to see her as not just doing things that are violent and cruel, but as particularly outside the expectations of what a woman should do.” That is why, she says, in cases in which women are sentenced to death and executed, prosecutors and the press "played up to a great extent" that "these were women who stepped outside the norms of gendered expectations." Dr. Atwell is Professor Emerita of Criminal Justice at Radford University and author of three books on capital punishment, most recently Wretched Sisters: Examining Gender and Capital Punishment.

Former Inmates Plead for Clemency for Kelly Gissendaner, Who Gave Them Hope in Prison

A group of former Georgia prisoners is calling for clemency for Kelly Gissendaner, who is scheduled to be executed on September 29. The women say Gissendaner gave them hope and helped them turn their lives around. Nikki Roberts said she spoke to Gissendaner through a heating vent after Roberts had been placed in "lockdown" for trying to slit her wrists. Gissendaner told her, "Don't wish death on yourself. You sound like you've got some sense." Gissendaner encouraged Roberts to take taching courses and study theology. Roberts joined a choir and became a prayer leader. She was paroled last year and now teaches adult literacy. "Killing Kelly is essentially killing hope. Kelly is the poster child for redemption," Roberts said. Another woman, Nicole Legere, said Gissendaner helped her and many others. "I saw the change in (other inmates) who talked to her. There needs to be people like her, someone to be a mentor. She’s a lot of hope. And there’s not much hope in there." Gissendaner was convicted for her role in facilitating the murder of her husband, based upon the testimony of the actual killer, who received a deal in which he will become eligible for parole. If Gissendaner is executed, she will be the first woman executed in Georgia since 1945 and the only person who did not directly commit the killing to be executed in Georgia since the state reestablished the death penalty in the 1970s.

Former Death Row Inmate Michelle Byrom Released from Mississippi Prison

Michelle Byrom (pictured, seated) was released from prison in Mississippi on June 26 after spending 16 years behind bars, 14 of them on death row, for the murder of her husband. Byrom maintains her innocence for the crime, but agreed to an Alford plea -- which means that she pleaded no contest to the charges against her -- in exchange for her release. In 2014, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed Byrom's conviction and death sentence and ordered a new trial, citing numerous problems in her case. Byrom's attorneys failed to present any mitigating evidence, and the jury was never told that Byrom's son, Junior, had confessed to killing his father. Junior initially told police that his mother had hired someone to kill his father, but later wrote in a letter, "You are all I have, and they're trying to take that away from me now, but Mom I'm gonna tell you right now who killed Dad 'cause I'm sick and tired of all the lies. I did, and it wasn't for money, it wasn't for all the abuse — it was because I can't kill myself." Junior pleaded guilty to conspiring in the murder, was sentenced to 30 years, and received a supervised release in 2013. John White, one of Byrom's attorneys, said of her release, "It's been a long arduous journey. The outcome is appropriate, given the history of the case."

INNOCENCE: Debra Milke Exonerated from Arizona Death Row

UPDATE: On March 23, Judge Rosa Mroz officially dismissed the charges against Milke. Milke has been added to DPIC's exoneration list. See Milke's statement on her exoneration. PREVIOUSLY: On March 17, the Arizona Supreme Court denied a request by prosecutors that it review a lower court's order that dismissed the charges against Debra Milke as a result of "egregious" police and prosecutorial misconduct and barring her retrial. The court's decision effectively ends prosecutorial efforts to reinstate murder charges against Milke. Milke spent 23 years on death row for allegedly arranging for two men to kill her 4-year-old son so she could collect an insurance payout. The two men who were convicted of committing the killing remain on death row. In 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned Milke's conviction because the prosecutor had withheld evidence that undermined key testimony in the case. Arizona's prosecutors have been accused of misconduct in more than half of all cases in which the state has imposed death sentences. In this case, Detective Armando Saldate testified that Milke had confessed to him, but there was no recording, nor any witnesses to the confession, and Milke steadfastly denied having confessed. Saldate's personnel record, which prosecutors withheld from the defense, revealed that the detective had committed serious misconduct in prior cases, including lying under oath. In December 2014, the Arizona Court of Appeals barred prosecutors from retrying Milke. The state sought to appeal that decision to the Arizona Supreme Court, which the court rejected on Tuesday. The trial court is expected to formally dismiss the charges next week, which would make Milke the 151st person exonerated from death row since 1973 and the first in 2015. She will be the ninth person exonerated from death row in Arizona and the second female death row exoneree in the U.S.

Georgia Execution Postponed Due to Problem with Execution Drugs

The execution of Kelly Gissendaner was postponed just hours before it was scheduled to take place on March 2, after correctional officials in Georgia became concerned that the lethal injection chemicals appeared cloudy. "The Department of Corrections immediately consulted with a pharmacist, and in an abundance of caution, Inmate Gissendaner's execution has been postponed," the Department of Corrections said in a statement. Georgia is one of several states that have turned to compounding pharmacies for lethal injection drugs after large pharmaceutical companies blocked the use of their products in executions. A state secrecy law shields the identity of the drug preparer. Gissendaner's lawyers had filed appeals with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the lack of transparency could allow the use of drugs that were unreliable. Georgia has not yet announced a new execution date. Gissendaner's execution was previously moved from February 25 to March 2 due to a winter storm.

Georgia Board Denies Clemency for Sole Woman on Death Row

UPDATE: Gissendaner's execution has been rescheduled to Monday, March 2, due to a winter storm forecast to hit Georgia. Previously: On February 25 the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency to Kelly Gissendaner, the only woman on the state's death row. Gissendaner was convicted of orchestrating the murder of her husband, but did not carry out the killing herself. At Gissendaner's clemency hearing, 21 people testified in favor of a reduction in sentence, including two of Gissendaner's children, several prison volunteers, and members of the clergy. Gissendaner's daughter, Kayla, said, "My father’s death was extremely painful for many people, but I’ve recently concluded that in many ways I was the person who was most impacted by his murder. The impact of losing my mother would be devastating. I can’t fathom losing another parent.” The man who committed the murder pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Gissendaner's attorney advised her not to take the same deal, saying that he thought a jury would not sentence her to death, "because she was a woman and because she did not actually kill Doug." Unless an appeals court halts the execution, Gissendaner will be the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years.

NEW RESOURCES: "Death Row, USA" Spring 2014 Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA showed an ongoing decline in the size of the death row population. The number of prisoners on death row decreased from 3,070 on January 1, 2014, to 3,054 on April 1. The new total represented a 12% drop from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,487. California continued to have the largest death row, with 743 inmates, followed by Florida (404), Texas (276), Alabama (201), and Pennsylvania (194). The states with the highest percentage of minorities on death row were Delaware (78%) and Texas (72%), among states with at least 10 inmates. The total death row population was 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino, and 2% other races. Only 1.9% of death row prisoners were female.

STUDIES: Murder of Female Victims More Likely to Result in Death Sentence

A recent study by researchers at Cornell Law School found that the gender of the murder victim may influence whether a defendant receives the death penalty. Using data from 1976 to 2007 in Delaware, the study found that in cases with female victims, 47.1% resulted in death sentences, while in those involving male victims, only 32.3% were sentenced to death. The researchers looked at a number of factors other than the victim's gender that might have affected sentencing decisions, including the heinousness of the crime, whether there was a sexual element to the murder, and the relationship between defendant and victim. The study found that some of the gender effect in sentencing could be explained by factors other than just the gender of the victim. Crimes involving sexual violence were more likely to result in a death sentence, as were crimes in which the victim and defendant knew one another, and victims of both of those types of crimes are more likely to be women.

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