Women and the Death Penalty
- As of October 1, 2016 there were 54 women on death row. This constitutes 1.86% of the total death row population of 2,902 persons. (NAACP Legal Defense Fund).
- In the past 100 years, more than 40 women have been executed in the U.S, including 16 since 1976. See Women Executed in the U.S. Since 1900 for the date, state, race, and method of each execution.
- Much of this information is taken from "Death Penalty For Female Offenders, January 1973 through December 31, 2012 [PDF]" by Victor L. Streib, Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University College of Law, with periodic annotations by DPIC (Please see the full-text of the report for more details.)
In general, both the death sentencing rate and the death row population remain very small for women in comparison to that for men. Actual execution of female offenders is quite rare, with only 575 documented instances as of 12/31/2016, beginning with the first in 1632. These executions constitute about 3.6% of the total of 15,931 confirmed executions in the United States (including the colonies) since 1608.
|Date of Execution||Name||Race||State||Execution Method||Race of Victim(s)||Realtionship of Victim(s)|
|1.||11/2/1984||VELMA BARFIELD||W||NC||Lethal Injection||1/W||boyfriend|
|2.||2/3/1998||KARLA FAYE TUCKER||W||TX||Lethal Injection||1/W||stranger|
|4.||2/24/2000||BETTY LOU BEETS||W||TX||Lethal Injection||1/W||husband|
|5.||5/2/2000||CHRISTINA RIGGS||W||AR||Lethal Injection||2/W||children|
|6.||1/11/2001||WANDA JEAN ALLEN||B||OK||Lethal Injection||1/B||significant other|
|7.||5/1/2001||MARILYN PLANTZ||W||OK||Lethal Injection||1/W||husband|
|8.||12/2/2001||LOIS NADEAN SMITH||W||OK||Lethal Injection||1/W||son's ex-girlfriend|
|9.||5/10/2002||LYNDA LYON BLOCK||W||AL||Electrocution||1/W||stranger (police officer)|
|10.||10/9/2002||AILEEN WUORNOS||W||FL||Lethal Injection||1/W||stranger|
|11.||9/14/2005||FRANCES NEWTON||B||TX||Lethal Injection||3/B||children and husband|
|12.||9/23/2010||TERESA LEWIS||W||VA||Lethal Injection||2/W||husband and stepson|
|13.||6/26/2013||KIMBERLY MCCARTHY||B||TX||Lethal Injection||1/W||neighbor|
|14.||2/5/2014||SUZANNE BASSO||W||TX||Lethal Injection||1/W||boyfriend|
|15.||9/17/2014||LISA COLEMAN||B||TX||Lethal Injection||1/B||girlfriend's son|
|16.||9/30/2015||KELLY GISSENDANER||W||GA||Lethal Injection||1/W||husband|
Velma Barfield in North Carolina on November 2, 1984 - She was in a relationship with Stuart Taylor who was a widower. She forged checks on
Karla Faye Tucker in Texas on February 3, 1998 - When she was 13, she began traveling with the Allman Brothers Band. In her early 20's she started to hang out with bikers and on June 13, 1983 she entered the home of another biker with Danny Garrett and James Leibrant to steal a motorcycle. During the robbery, two persons were killed, and Garrett and Tucker were convicted of committing murder with a pickaxe. This case entered the U.S. and international news because she had become a born-again Christian while in prison and George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, had to decide on her request for clemency, which he ultimately denied. Read "Karla Faye Tucker: Texas' Controversial Murderess" by Joseph Geringer, Court TV.
Judy Buenoano in Florida on March 30, 1998 - Buenoano executed for the 1971 murder of her husband James Goodyear. As well, she was convicted of multiple counts of grand theft (for insurance fraud), and is thought to have committed multiple acts of arson (again, for purposes of insurance fraud). Read "Florida's Black Widow Executed" by CNN (March 30, 1998).
Betty Lou Beets in Texas on February 24, 2000 - She was convicted of shooting her fifth husband Jimmy Don Beets. Beets reported that her husband was missing on August 6, 1983 from their home in Henderson County, Texas. Her son, Robert Branson, would later testify that Beets had said that she intended to kill her husband and told her son to leave the house. On returning two hours later to the house, he found Jimmy Don Beets dead with two gunshot wounds. He helped his mother conceal the body in the front yard of the house, after which Beets telephoned the police. At the time of the execution, she was 62 years old, and had five children, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. See "Texas Executes Betty Lous Beets for Husband's Murder" by CNN (February 24, 2000).
Christina Riggs in Arkansas on May 2, 2000 - Riggs, a licensed nurse, was convicted of murder by smothering her two preschool-aged children in their beds at the family's Sherwood home. She wrote suicide notes saying "I hope one day you will forgive me for taking my life and the life of my children. But I can’t live like this any more, and I couldn’t bear to leave my children behind to be a burden on you or to be separated and raised apart from their fathers and live knowing their mother killed herself." Then took 28 Elavil tablets, normally a lethal dose, and injected herself with enough undiluted potassium chloride to kill five people. The next day, police officers entered her apartment and found Riggs and rushed her to the hospital. During the death penalty phase, Riggs would not allow attorneys to put on a defense, saying she wanted a death sentence. The jury obliged, and she was sentenced to death by lethal injection. Riggs said "thank you" and squeezed her attorney's hand. Read "Woman Executed in Arkansas" by BBC News (May 3, 2000).
Wanda Jean Allen in Oklahoma on January 11, 2001- She was sentenced to death in 1989 for killing her lover, Gloria Leathers, in Oklahoma City in 1988. The two women, who had met in prison, had a turbulent relationship. Leathers' death followed a protracted argument between the couple which began at a local shop, continued at their home, and culminated outside a police station. Allen maintained she had acted in self-defence, claiming that Leathers had struck her in the face with a hand rake during the confrontation at the house, and that outside the police station Leathers had again come at her with the rake. Allen shot Leathers. The wound to Allen's face from the rake was still visible when she was photographed in jail. Later in 1995, A psychologist conducted a comprehensive evaluation of Wanda Jean Allen found ''clear and convincing evidence of cognitive and sensori-motor deficits and brain dysfunction'' possibly linked to an adolescent head injury. See Amnesty International's Legal Concern on Wanda Jean Allen.
Marilyn Plantz in Oklahoma on May 1, 2001 - Plantz hired her teenage boyfriend Clifford Bryson and his friend William McKimble to kill her husband for about $300,000 in life insurance. Entering his home after work, he was ambushed by Bryson and McKimble and beaten with bats while Plantz and kids were asleep in bed. Plantz got up and instructed them to "burn him" to make it look like an accident. They drove him to deserted location, doused him and his pickup with gasoline and set it on fire. McKimble pled to Life and testified. Plantz and Bryson were tried jointly. Bryson was executed in 2000. Read "Oklahoma Woman Faces Execution" by BBC News (May 1, 2001).
Lois Nadean Smith in Oklahoma on December 2, 2001- Smith was convicted of killing her son's 21- year old ex-girlfriend, Cindy Baillie in July 1982. Baillie was shot nine times and stabbed in the throat. Authorities said Smith and her son, Greg, picked up Baillie the morning of the killing. Smith then confronted her about rumors that she had threatened to have her son killed. Lois Smith's attorneys said she was trying to protect her son and was under the influence of alcohol and drugs at the time. See Lois Nadean Smith from the Clark County, IN prosecutor.
Lynda Lyon Block in Alabama on May 10, 2002 - Lyon shot Alabama police Sergeant Roger Motley, Jr. outside of a Wal-Mart during a gunfight between him and her common-law husband, George Sibley, Jr. By Sibley's own account, he was trying to explain to Motley why he didn't need a driver's license when Motley put his hand on his service revolver. Sibley then drew his gun out of the car. Motley took cover behind his patrol car; witnesses stated Sibley fired first. Lyon was at a pay phone when she heard gunfire. Witnesses stated that she was in a crouched position when she fired; she said she fired just as she stopped running toward Motley. She kept firing as he got into his patrol car because, she recalled later, she feared he was getting a shotgun. They maintained they acted in self-defense. Read Amnesty International's Urgent Action on Lynda Lyon Block.
Aileen Wuornos in Florida on October 9, 2002 - Wuornos was a prostitute and convicted serial killer who was sentenced to death by the state of Florida in 1992. She ultimately received five additional death sentences. Wuornos admitted to killing seven men, in separate incidents, all of whom she claimed raped her (or attempted to) while she was working as a prostitute. The 2003 movie Monster, starring Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci, tells Wuornos' story from the moment she met Selby Wall (based on Wuornos' lover and four-year companion, Tyria Moore) until her first conviction for murder. See "Aileen Wuornos: Killer Who Preyed on Truck Drivers" by Marlee MacLeod, Court TV.
Frances Newton in Texas on September 14, 2005 - She was executed for the for the April 7, 1987 murder of her husband, Adrian, 23, her son, Alton, 7, and daughter, Farrah, 21 months. The prosecution suggested that the motive for the killings was to collect the US $100,000 life insurance policy. Newton said that a drug dealer killed the three. The Houston police claims that her husband, Adrian Newton, was a drug dealer and was in debt to his supplier. Newton maintained her innocence from her first interrogation in 1987 until her execution in 2005. Read Amnesty International's Legal Concern on Frances Newton.
Teresa Lewis in Virginia on September 23, 2010 - She was executed for the October 30, 2002 murder of her husband and stepson in an attempt to claim life insurance money. The murder was carried out by two hired gunmen, Matthew Shallenberger and Rodney Fuller, who were both sentenced to life in prison. Lewis was regarded as the mastermind of the murders at the time of her trial, though later analysis would suggest that with her low IQ and dependency disorder that she was manipulated by the gunmen. Read The Washington Post's story on Teresa Lewis.
Kimberly McCarthy in Texas on June 26, 2013 - She was executed for the 1997 murder of a 71-year-old retired college professor, who was her neighbor. Attorneys for McCarthy filed motions to stay her execution on the grounds that jury selection was tainted by racial bias and McCarthy's original attorney did not provide adequate representation. McCarthy was the 500th person executed in Texas since the reinstatement of the death penalty. Read The Guardian's story on Kimberly McCarthy.
Suzanne Basso in Texas on February 5, 2014 - Basso was convicted of murdering a mentally disabled man who was her boyfriend, ostensibly for insurance money. Others convicted in the offense did not receive the death penalty.
Lisa Coleman in Texas on September 17, 2014 - Coleman was executed for the starvation death of her partner's 9-year-old son. The victim's mother and Coleman's co-defendant, Marcella Williams, pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence.
Kelly Gissendaner in Georgia on September 30, 2015 - Gissendaner was executed for arranging to have her boyfriend kill her husband. The boyfriend received a life sentence in exchange for testifying against her. Gissendaner's children pleaded for clemency, saying they had forgiven her and didn't want to lose another parent. Several former prison inmates said that Gissendaner had given them hope and helped them turn their lives around. Pleas for clemency also came from Pope Francis, a former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice, and a former Deputy Director of the state Corrections Department.
Prior to the modern era of the U.S. death penalty beginning in 1976, the last female offender executed was Elizabeth Ann Duncan by California on August 8, 1962.
Death sentences and executions for female offenders are also rare in comparison to such events for male offenders. Women are more likely to drop out of the death-penalty system the further it progresses:
* women account for about 1 in 10 (10%) murder arrests;
* women account for only 1 in 50 (2.1%) death sentences imposed at the trial level;
* women account for only 1 in 67 (1.8%) persons presently on death row; and
* women account for only 1 in 100 (.9%) persons actually executed in the modern era.
DEATH SENTENCES IMPOSED UPON FEMALE OFFENDERS, 1973 — December 31, 2016
Since 1973, 181 death sentences have been imposed upon female offenders. These sentences constitute about 2% of all death sentences.
|Year||Total Death Sentences*||Female Death Sentences||Portion of Total|
As of 12/31/2016. Data through 12/31/12 taken from "Death Penalty For Female Offenders, January 1973 through December 31, 2012" by Victor L. Streib, Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University College of Law. (Please see the full-text of the report for more details.) Updates and periodic annotations by DPIC.
The 178 death sentences for female offenders have been imposed in 26 states and by the federal government, comprising two-thirds of the 39 death penalty jurisdictions during this time period. Five states (California, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and Alabama) account for more than half of all such sentences.
STATE-BY-STATE BREAKDOWN, JANUARY 1, 1973, to DECEMBER 31, 2016
||Total Female Sentences|
|White||Black||Latina||Native Amer. / Asian|
Taken from "Death Penalty For Female Offenders, January 1973 through December 31, 2012 [PDF]" by Victor L. Streib, Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University College of Law, with periodic annotations by DPIC (Please see the full-text of the report for more details.)
As of January 1, 2016 there were 55 women on death row.
The present ages of the women on death row range from 28 to 79 years old. They have been on death row from a few months to more than 26 years.
CHARACTERISTICS OF OFFENDERS AND VICTIMS IN FEMALE DEATH PENALTY CASES, as of December 31, 2012
|AGE OF OFFENDER AT CRIME||NR.||Per.|
|20 - 29||22||36%|
|30 - 39||23||38%|
|40 - 49||11||18%|
|50 - 59||2||3%|
|CURRENT AGE OF OFFENDER||NR.||Per.||RACE||NR.||Per.|
|20 - 29||2||3%||Black||13||21%|
|30 - 39||13||21%||Latina||8||13%|
|40 - 49||24||39%||American Indian||1||2%|
|50 - 59||15||24%||White||37||61%|
|60 - 69||5||8%||Asian||2||3%|
|70 - 79||2||3%|
|Age at Time of the Crime||NR.||Per.||RACE/SEX||NR.||Per.|
|0 - 4||9||11%||Asian Male||3||3%|
|5 - 9||18||21%||Asian Female||3||3%|
|10 - 19||12||14%||Black Male||2||2%|
|20 - 29||16||19%||Black Female||5||5%|
|30 - 39||11||13%||Latin Male||12||14%|
|40 - 49||4||5%||Latin Female||11||13%|
|50 - 59||5||6%||White Male||30||35%|
|60 - 69||3||3%||White Female||19||22%|
|70 - 79||4||5%|
|80 - 89||3||3%|
* Taken from "Death Penalty For Female Offenders, January 1973 through December 31, 2012 [PDF]" by Victor L. Streib, Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University College of Law, with periodic annotations by DPIC (Please see the full-text of the report for more details.)
* Victor Streib's report states that 61 women are currently on death row. The NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund's "Death Row USA" October 1, 2012; states that 63 women are currently on death row. Death Row USA, however, includes sentences that have been reversed and are awaiting final disposition.
Atwell, Mary W., Wretched Sisters: Examining Gender and Capital Punishment (Peter Lang Press, 2nd ed. 2014)
Baker, David V.: "A Descriptive Profile and Socio-Historical Analysis of Female Executions in the United States: 1632-1997," 10(3) Women and Criminal Justice 57 (1999)
Crocker, Phyllis, "Is the Death Penalty Good for Women," 4 Buffalo Criminal Law Review 917 (2001) — This article examines gender and race issues in rape-murder death penalty cases.
Howarth, Joan W., "Executing White Masculinities: Learning from Karla Faye Tucker," 81 Oregon Law Review 183 (2002)
Rapaport, Elizabeth, "Staying Alive: Executive Clemency, Equal Protection, and the Politics of Gender in Women's Capital Cases," 4 Buffalo Criminal Law Review 967 (2001) — This article considers how clemency decisions are made with regard to women and the extent to which gender issues affect those decisions.
Rapaport, Elizabeth, "Equality of the Damned: The Execution of Women on the Cusp of the 21st Century," 26 Ohio Northern University Law Review 581 (2000)
Streib, Victor, The Fairer Death: Executing Women in Ohio (Ohio University Press, 2006)
Download / Listen to our Discussions With DPIC podcast Women and the Death Penalty, With Professor Mary Atwell
In observance of Women's History Month 2017, DPIC staff members Anne Holsinger and Robin Konrad interviewed Mary Atwell, Ph.D., one of the nation’s foremost experts on women on death row. 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. The podcast discusses Dr. Atwell's research and highlights the themes and patterns present in capital murder cases in which women were the defendants. Running time: 41:06 (March 24, 2017)