Women

“Judged for More Than Her Crime”: New Report Examines Worldwide Use of Death Penalty Against Women

Women face “widespread discriminatory practices in the capital prosecution and detention” in death-penalty countries around the world, according to a new report by the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. The report, Judged for More Than Her Crime: A Global Overview of Women Facing the Death Penalty—released at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland on September 18, 2018—examines the use of capital punishment against women worldwide, including the crimes for which women are sentenced to death and the conditions of imprisonment they face on death row. At least 500 women are on death rows around the world, and the report estimates that more than 100 women have been executed in the last decade. The cases in which women are sentenced to death, the report states, are “emblematic of systemic failings in the application of capital punishment,” with death sentences often imposed on women who are illiterate, mentally ill, intellectually disabled, or members of marginalized ethnic groups. The report finds that women’s histories of gender-based violence are frequently ignored by attorneys and judges in those countries that retain the death penalty. In a statement accompanying release of the report, the Cornell Center wrote, “[f]emale survivors of domestic abuse are particularly vulnerable to unfair sentencing practices.” While the report notes that gender bias can operate in favor of more lenient sentencing for some women, that same gender bias results in harsher treatment of women who are seen as violating gender expectations. “[W]omen facing the death penalty have been cast as the ‘femme fatale,’ the ‘child murderer,’ or the ‘witch,’” the report says. In the foreword to the report, Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, writes that “[c]riminal justice processes, largely designed by and for men, frequently are not only blind to the causes and consequences of gender-based violence, they may actively reinforce gender-based discrimination.” The report, she says, “reveals that courts judge women not just for their alleged offenses, but also for what are perceived to be their moral failings as women: as ‘disloyal’ wives, ‘uncaring’ mothers, ‘ungrateful’ daughters. Nowhere are transgressions of the social norms of gender behavior punished more severely than in a capital trial.” The report also documents how women are uniquely affected by the harsh conditions on death rows around the world. In some countries, they must care for their infants or young children while shackled by the hands and feet. Female prisoners in Thailand and Myanmar have reportedly given birth alone in prison. Menstruating women are given little or no access to sanitary pads or other necessary products. Sandra Babcock, Faculty Director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, said: “Hundreds of women have been unjustly sentenced to death around the world, yet their cases have been neglected by activists, scholars, and the international community. We hope that this report will draw attention to their plight and inspire courts and policymakers to modify their sentencing practices.”

Cases in Sudan, Saudi Arabia Illustrate Use of Death Penalty Against Women to Enforce Gender Norms

In high-profile cases in Sudan and Saudi Arabia, human rights advocates are protesting the threatened use of the death penalty against women for resisting oppression. In the Sudan, prosecutors are seeking to reinstate the death sentence against Noura Hussein (pictured), a teen girl forced into marriage who killed her abusive husband as he tried to rape her. The Saudi Arabian government is seeking the death penalty against Israa al-Ghomgham, an activist who has sought equal rights for Shiite Muslims. The two cases illustrate a worldwide pattern in the use of capital punishment against women who defy cultural gender norms. Hussein, now 19 years old, was forced into marriage at age 16. She fled the marriage, but was tricked into returning by her own family. When she refused to have sex with her husband, he enlisted several cousins to hold her down while he raped her. When he attempted to rape her again the next day, she stabbed him to death. Hussein's family turned her in to the authorities, and she was tried and sentenced to death in May 2018. After an international campaign on her behalf, a Sudanese court reduced Hussein's conviction to manslaughter, sentenced her to five years imprisonment, and fined her. State prosecutors are appealing the decision and seek to have her death sentence reinstated. Yasmeen Hassan of the human rights group Equality Now called the Sudan "an extremely patriarchal place [where] gender norms are very strongly enforced." She said Sudan permits arranged marriages for girls as young as age 10, "there's legal guardianship of men over women, women are told you have to walk a straight and narrow line and don't transgress." Amnesty International spokesperson Seif Magango called the use of the death penalty against Hussein "an intolerable act of cruelty." Condemning a girl for "killing her rapist husband in self-defence," she said, demonstrates the "failure of the authorities to tackle child marriage, forced marriage and marital rape." Hussein's family has fled their home, fearing reprisal from the victim's family. The victim's father told a Sudanese newspaper that, even if Hussein is executed, they will still seek revenge, because she killed a man, and women are not equal to men. Saudi Arabia, known for its oppression of women, has recently begun a crackdown on women's right's activists. While the Kingdom has often used the death penalty against political dissidents, trying them in terrorism courts notorious for the denial of due process, Human Rights Watch reports that al-Ghomgham is the first female activist to face execution for her human rights-related work. “Any execution is appalling," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, "but seeking the death penalty for activists like Israa al-Ghomgham, who are not even accused of violent behavior, is monstrous.” The organization warned that the action sets a "dangerous precedent for other women activists currently behind bars."

The pattern of executing women who break gender expectations has been identified and examined by death-penalty researchers. Dr. Mary Atwell, author of three books on capital punishment, explained: "[F]or 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 the U.S. 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."

History of Lynchings of Mexican Americans Provides Context for Recent Challenges to U.S. Death Penalty

From 1846 to 1870, more than 100 men and women were hanged on the branches of the notorious "Hanging Tree" in Goliad, Texas. Many were Mexicans or Mexican Americans and many were killed by lynching. In a November 25 op-ed in the San Antonio Express-News, historian Alfredo Torres, Jr. writes that these public killings are a reminder that "the noose, [which] has been identified as emblematic of violence and oppression toward African-Americans, [is] often overlooked as a symbol of terror for Mexican-Americans." Torres says that no region experienced more lynchings of Mexican Americans than Southern Texas, and the public spectacles on the Goliad County Courthouse lawn (pictured), now an historic landmark and tourist attraction, were witnessed by Anglo families "in a carnival-like atmosphere, bringing picnic baskets and taking photos." Lynchings of more than 871 Mexican Americans are documented across 13 Western and Southwestern states after the Civil War. But Torres says "these numbers don’t compare to what was done in Texas," where historians William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb estimate that more than 5,000 Mexican Americans were murdered between 1910 to 1920. That wave of terror included numerous extra-judicial lynchings and murders of Mexican Americans by vigilantes, local law-enforcement officers, and Texas Rangers. Texas A & M-Kingsville journalism professor Manuel Flores wrote in an October 2017 column in the Corpus Cristi Caller-Times that the death and legend of Josefa “Chipita” Rodriguez—framed for the 1863 ax murder of a White cotton merchant and horse trader in what was still Confederate Texas—symbolizes the racial violence against Mexican Americans in the state and "are as pertinent to the state of Texas as that of the Alamo and Goliad stories." Rodriguez was falsely accused of murder and the theft of $600 after the dismembered body of John Savage was found on the banks of the river near her traveler's lodge. Though there was no evidence of her involvement in the murder and she insisted “No soy culpable" ("I'm not guilty"), she was quickly tried, sentenced, and hanged. In 1985, the Texas Legislature adopted a resolution absolving Rodríguez of the murder, and Gov. Mark White signed the resolution, posthumously pardoning her on June 13, 1985. Cardigan and Webb say that widespread lynchings of Mexican Americans persisted into the 1920s, "eventually declining largely because of pressure from the Mexican government." Issues of racial bias against Mexicans and others of Latino descent in the administration of the death penalty in the U.S. persist. 122 Latino prisoners have been executed in the United States since 1985. Texas has carried out 84.4% of those executions (103), including the controversial execution of Mexican national Ruben Ramírez Cárdenas on November 8, in violation of international treaty obligations to have permitted him to obtain consular assistance from his government. 373 Latino/a prisoners are on state or federal death rows across the United States, with three-quarters sentenced to death in California (188), Texas (67), or Arizona (27). A challenge to the constitutionality of Arizona's death penalty, filed by Abel Daniel Hidalgo, is currently pending in the U.S. Supreme Court. His petition presents evidence that in Arizona, "a Hispanic man accused of killing a white man is 4.6 times as likely to be sentenced to death as a white man accused of killing a Hispanic victim." The Court will consider during its December 1 conference meeting whether to accept Hidalgo's case for review.

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.

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