Women and the death penalty

When it comes to gender equality, death row is a pretty unfair place, if you're a man.

When it comes to gender equality, death row is a pretty unfair place, if you're a man.

The recent execution of Cal Coburn Brown in Washington state brought out all the arguments against capital punishment: that it's barbaric, expensive, and racist, among other things. The latter argument is that the death penalty isn't meted out equally, that a disproportionate number of those convicted of murder, for example, are African American.

Following that line of argument, you would think executions that provided some evidence the system isn't entirely biased would be hailed. Last week, the state of Virginia executed a woman for the first time in a century. Is executing a woman inherently bad? Or, in this era of moving toward gender equality, is it a sign of fairness?

You wouldn't think so from the coverage. "Woman Executed in Virginia" was the headline on an Associated Press story in the New York Times. Given the relative rarity of such executions, putting a woman to death is news, but by implication the story raised its eyebrows at the fact that women would be executed at all:

[Teresa Lewis] was the first woman in Virginia since 1912 put to death....

Texas held the most recent U.S. execution of a woman in 2005. Out of more than 1,200 people put to death since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, only 11 have been women....

Her fate also had drawn appeals from the European Union, an indignant rebuke from Iran and the disgust of thousands of people.

Aside from indignant rebukes from Iran (!), there are legitimate arguments against the death penalty, but is gender one of them? Or are some people promoting a kind of neo-Victorian sense that women should be put on pedestals, above the law based on their sex? Women represent over half of the US population (50.7 percent). Yet there are some 3,200 prisoners sitting on death row, and only 53 of them are women. If we've reached true social and gender equality, shouldn't there be fewer blacks and more women?

In the Teresa Lewis case, death penalty opponents also raised the issue of her intelligence, though she did not meet the legal threshold of being mentally deficient with an IQ in the low- to mid-70s. The Huffington Post home page headline ignored the gender issue and went for a time with a headline of "Virginia Executes 72-IQ 'Mastermind.' " 

Lewis confessed to arranging for two hit-men to murder her husband and stepson for the insurance money. Her defense suggested she was incapable of hatching the scheme on her own. The implication of the Huffington headline is that a person with a below-average IQ could not plan a murder. But the world and its prisons are full of not very bright, not very nice people, some of them extremely manipulative. A few end up on death row.

Do we really want gender and IQ tests to determine the severity of punishments?

As far as Cal Coburn Brown was concerned, he only had one last complaint as he faced lethal injection in Walla Walla. "I only killed one victim," he pouted.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.