Woman’s ex­e­cu­tion could sig­nal shift in U.S. think­ing

Her death breaks with tra­di­tional queasi­ness over such pun­ish­ment for fe­male crim­i­nals.

Los Angeles Times - - Late Extra - Carol J. Wil­liams

Vir­ginia put to death a 41year-old woman Thurs­day night, the first ex­e­cu­tion of a fe­male in the coun­try in five years and the first in that state for nearly a cen­tury.

The lethal-in­jec­tion death of Teresa Lewis, con­victed of the 2002 con­tract killing of her hus­band and step­son, broke with a tra­di­tion of so­ci­etal “queasi­ness” about ex­e­cut­ing women, one le­gal ex­pert said. It could also psy­cho­log­i­cally clear the way to car­ry­ing out death sen­tences on oth­ers among the 60 con­demned women in the nation — in­clud­ing 18 in Cal­i­for­nia, ac­cord­ing to some cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment ob­servers.

Lewis’ death sen­tence was only the 12th car­ried out against a woman pris­oner in the 34 years since cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment was re­stored as a sen­tenc­ing op­tion. In that same pe­riod, 1,214 men have been put to death.

Le­gal schol­ars at­tribute the “gen­der bias” in ex­e­cu­tions to women’s lower propen­sity to kill and the ten­dency of those who do to kill a hus­band, lover or child in the heat of emo­tion, sel­dom with the “ag­gra­vat­ing fac­tors” states re­quire for a death sen­tence. Lewis pleaded guilty to hav­ing ar­ranged the killings to col­lect $250,000 in in­surance money on her step­son.

“The way cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment statutes are writ­ten in­ad­ver­tently fa­vor women. They make it a worse crime if a homi­cide is com­mit­ted dur­ing a felony, like rob­bery or rape, which are rarely in­volved in women’s homi­cides,” said Vic­tor Streib, a North­ern Ohio Uni­ver­sity law pro­fes­sor who has spent

30 years re­search­ing con­demned women. “It’s also eas­ier to con­vince a jury that women suf­fer emo­tional dis­tress or other emo­tional prob­lems more than men.”

Still, Streib added, “there are some cases that can’t be ex­plained by any­thing ex­cept a queasi­ness at ex­e­cut­ing women. We just seem to be re­luc­tant to do that.”

Lewis was the first woman to be ex­e­cuted in Vir­ginia since 1912, when a 17-year-old African Amer­i­can maid named Vir­ginia Chris­tian was sent to the elec­tric chair for killing her em­ployer af­ter be­ing ac­cused of steal­ing a locket.

Lewis was the only woman on death row in a state that is sec­ond in the num­ber of ex­e­cu­tions since 1976, with 107 com­pared with Texas’ 463.

Texas car­ried out the last fe­male ex­e­cu­tion in the United States on Sept. 14, 2005. Frances Newton was put to death by lethal in­jec­tion for the mur­ders of her hus­band and two chil­dren. Pros­e­cu­tors said she wanted to col­lect $100,000 in in­surance money.

A Bri­tish na­tional con­victed in Texas of hir­ing men to kill a neigh­bor and steal the vic­tim’s new­born son also is likely to face ex­e­cu­tion this year. The U.S. Supreme Court has de­nied re­view of the con­vic­tion of 51year-old Linda Carty, de­spite ap­peals by the Bri­tish govern­ment to spare her life.

Cal­i­for­nia has the nation’s largest death row, with 708 con­demned in­mates. Na­tion­ally, there were 61 con­demned women at the start of this year, com­pared with more than 3,200 men, ac­cord­ing to the Death Penalty In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter data­base.

Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico law pro­fes­sor El­iz­a­beth Ra­pa­port ex­plains the death-sen­tence dis­par­ity with the kinds of crimes women tend to com­mit.

“Two thirds of the homi­cide crimes by women are do­mes­tic,” she said, usu­ally com­mit­ted in the heat of ar­gu­ment or un­der im­pair­ment by drugs or al­co­hol, sel­dom with the pre­med­i­ta­tion or other ag­gra­vat­ing cir­cum­stances that draw cap­i­tal charges.

Ra­pa­port said she was per­plexed by the so­cial per­cep­tion that killing an in­ti­mate is less heinous than killing a stranger.

“Why do we re­serve our great­est penal­ties for crimes against strangers, rather than those who vi­o­late the trust of the heart?” she asked. One rea­son, she spec­u­lated, is that murder in the course of kid­nap­ping, rape or rob­bery in­duces fear of the un­fore­see­able, while few peo­ple read of spouses killing each other and think it could hap­pen to them.

Most of the women on the nation’s death rows are there be­cause they com­mit­ted the heinous crimes for which the death penalty was in­tended, Ra­pa­port said.

“Is there some bias in the sys­tem? Might there be a pros­e­cu­tor or a jury from time to time less in­clined to pros­e­cute a woman or con­vict a woman? I can’t rule that out,” she said. “But if some­one wants to ar­gue that a sys­tem­atic pref­er­ence ex­ists, they have to get be­yond hunch and anec­dote and show me the money.”

Even the com­par­a­tively few women on death row tend to be con­victed of crimes against fam­ily and oth­ers they know.

Cal­i­for­nia’s con­demned women in­clude Dora Buen­rostro, a River­side women who stabbed her three chil­dren to death in a rage af­ter a fight with her ex-hus­band. Su­san Eubanks was sen­tenced to die by a San Diego judge for the 1997 shoot­ing deaths of her four sons, and Sandi Dawn Nieves was con­victed of set­ting fire to her Santa Clarita home in 1998, killing her four daugh­ters to pre­vent their fa­ther from gain­ing cus­tody. Mary Samuels, Cather­ine Thomp­son and An­gelina Ro­driguez, all of Los An­ge­les, re­ceived death sen­tences for the ag­gra­vated mur­ders of their hus­bands.

State of­fi­cials have been gear­ing up to re­sume ex­e­cu­tions af­ter a nearly five-year hia­tus, per­haps as soon as Wed­nes­day. How­ever, none of the women on death row have ex­hausted their ap­peals.

Steve Hel­ber

PROTEST: The Rev. Lynn Litch­field, left, hugs a friend out­side Greensville Cor­rec­tional Cen­ter in Jar­ratt, Va., af­ter the ex­e­cu­tion of Teresa Lewis on Thurs­day.


She was con­victed of killing her hus­band and step­son.

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