ARBITRARINESS: Different Outcomes in Similar Murder Cases in Tennessee

Gaile Owens (pictured) and Mary Winkler are two women who committed similar crimes under similar circumstances in Tennessee. Both women suffered from abuse from the spouses they killed, and both were examined by the same psychologist, twenty years apart.  The psychologist said both women suffered from battered woman's syndrome. Mary Winkler confronted her husband with a shotgun and shot him in the back in 2006. Gaile Owens hired a stranger to kill her husband.  Winkler was indicted for first-degree murder, convicted of voluntary manslaughter and served about two months in a mental health facility. She is now free and has custody of her children. Owens is on death row, awaiting execution by lethal injection.

According to an article by John Seigenthaler in the Tennessean, "The dramatic difference in the sentences received by Winkler and Owens relates directly to the manner in which the two cases were tried, how their separate teams of lawyers handled their cases and how two different judges dealt with their 'battered woman' defenses."  Winkler testified on her own behalf regarding the abuse she suffered, while Owens did not take the stand in order to protect her children from hearing the details of her abuse. Winkler was represented by experienced criminal lawyers, whose expenses were paid by her friends. Owens, on the other hand, had trouble finding legal representation. Her first lawyer withdrew from the case because she could not pay him. Perhaps the starkest difference between the two cases were the women's pleas. Winkler pled not guilty on the basis that she was a battered wife. Owens accepted the prosecutor's plea deal in return for a life sentence, but the prosecutor subsequently refused to accept the agreement when Owens's co-defendant would not accept the same plea. They were tried and sentenced to death together.

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STUDIES: Death Penalty for Female Offenders

The latest issue of the report, “Death Penalty for Female Offenders,” has been released by Professor Victor Streib of the Ohio Northern University School of Law.  The report includes national trends regarding women and the death penalty and case details about individual female death row inmates from 1973 through June 30, 2009.  The report notes that while women account for one in ten murder arrests (10%), only one in forty-nine death sentences imposed at trial are for women (2%); women account for one in sixty-two people on death row (1.6%), and only one in one hundred and six (0.9%) of people actually executed in the modern era have been women.  Additionally, almost half of the women now on death row were sentenced in domestic cases, with the victims being husbands, boyfriends, or their children.  The leading states for sentencing women to death in the modern era are Texas (19), California (18), Florida (17), and North Carolina (16).  The full report may be read here.

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