In this month’s episode of Discussions with DPIC, Managing Director Anne Holsinger speaks with Sandra Babcock (pictured), Clinical Professor at Cornell Law School, Faculty Director, and founder of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. Ms. Babcock’s clinic currently represents death sentenced women in the United States, Malawi, and Tanzania and is focused on providing defense teams in retentionist countries with training and consultation in order to provide the best possible legal representation for individuals facing sentences of death. The Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide also produces research highlighting the intersection of gender and the death penalty, as well as international legal issues and capital punishment. Ms. Babcock explains how the Center’s research has uncovered widespread, yet overlooked issues that women and other gender minorities face in the criminal legal system.

For 30 years, Ms. Babcock has been a dedicated defender of human rights for death-sentenced persons. Her work at the Cornell Center for the Death Penalty Worldwide includes the Makwanyane Institute, named after South Africa’s Constitutional Court landmark decision to abolish the death penalty. The Makwanyane Institute is an intensive trial training program for international capital defenders that has helped more than 400 lawyers become more effective advocates. In 2018, Ms. Babcock started The Alice Project, a research and advocacy initiative intended to help women facing death sentences “around the world for crimes that are directly connected to their experiences of gender-based violence.” The Alice Project is named after Alice Nungu, a former client of Ms. Babcock’s, whom she helped represent and secure release from death row after she killed her abusive partner.

While women make up a small percentage of individuals sentenced to death, Ms. Babcock explains that women face unique challenges in the criminal legal system. Women’s “pathways to incarceration and to death sentences are inextricably linked to their experience of gender oppression, of discrimination, and violence.” Research shows that more than 90% of women currently facing death sentences around the world have experienced at least one form of gender-based violence: child sexual abuse, rape, sexual assault, and/or intimate partner violence. The number of transgender and non-binary people on death row is also quite small, but Ms. Babcock believes the current legal system operates in a “deeply discriminatory and dehumanizing” fashion. Incarcerated transgender and non-binary individuals are at higher risk than cisgender women of both physical and sexual violence at the hands of law enforcement, correctional staff, and fellow prisoners. Ms. Babcock says that prison officials often disregard these individuals’ gender identities and fail to provide proper housing accommodations.

For Ms. Babcock, the stories of women on death row illustrate the societal issue and normalization of gender discrimination. Highlighting the story of Brenda Andrew, the only woman on Oklahoma’s death row, she discusses the prosecution’s deliberate characterization of Ms. Andrew as a flirtatious, unfaithful wife and mother. Prior to her arrest, Ms. Andrew was a Sunday-school teacher and had no criminal record. The prosecution relied on witness testimony that stereotyped Ms. Andrew and deliberately injected gender bias to secure her conviction. Ms. Andrew’s legal team will file a writ of certiorari at the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to prevent her execution, citing the extensive gender bias presented at trial. Ms. Babcock believes the court’s decision will make or break the future of gender discrimination in the administration of the death penalty: “…If they move forward with [Ms. Andrew’s] execution, it’s going to be, I think, a real illustration of how little regard the legal system has for gender bias, and how… women’s experiences of bias are deemed to be inconsequential in determining whether or not their trials were fair and in accordance with due process.”