The term ‘capital punishment’, or the imposition of the death penalty by the state, is stipulated under the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution. It was first widely practiced throughout Western Europe during the ancient times, from the fall of Rome to the beginnings of the modern era up until the 18th century when writings of Montesquieu and Voltaire, as well as Cesare Beccaria ‘s Essay on Crimes and Punishments (1764) sparked movements for its abolition (Encyclopedia article; The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2004, p. 1.)
By mid-2002, a total of 76 countries abolished capital punishment (Ibid, p. 1) but it remains to be enacted as a main policy for United States national crime control. Of present, we find the United States among the few western nations that still execute convicted felons (Muraskin, p. 573). Gender, as a consideration in the law, underscores inequality in capital punishment cases in the United States. There have been numerous cases wherein women were given less grave convictions as compared to men who have been sentenced to death for the same crimes.
According to Muraskin, between 1930 and 1967, the period when an unofficial moratorium on executions was agreed upon in the United States, a total of 3,859 were subjected to the death penalty by the state. Of which, only 32 were women (Muraskin, p. 573). In some cases, some women offenders who committed heinous crimes were only served solitary confinement sentences. Women, on the other hand, who suffered from psychological conditions as a result of cases of rape, battery or any sexual deviant behavioral act by their spouses, and who consequently became offenders of the law, were more often than not given lenient treatment in courts.
Instead of being sentenced to death, they were offered medical treatment by the state. In other cases, women offenders managed to acquire less grave sentences by virtue of ‘self-defense. ’ (Women and the Death Penalty in the United States, 1900-1998, Kathleen A. O’Shea, p. 203) These statistics, Muraskin argues, stresses the negative results of women empowerment in relation to capital punishment – or for this matter, as a consideration in meting out the full extent of justice.
The other face of women empowerment is having women becoming increasingly bolder and aggressive, thus, instilling in them the tendency to perform acts of crime and malpractice. This may also pertain to cases of women committing deviant behavioral crimes. Though in some cases, the law still seems to favor women, as in some cases of ‘crimes of passion’ where very few women offenders are sentenced. As a case in point, albeit not from the United States, Karla Homolka, a Canadian, was recently freed after serving a twelve-year jail term for murdering three women, one of them her fifteen-year-old sister, Tammy Lynn.
Homolka even took part in raping her sister. She blamed her husband, Paul Bernardo, for the crime and as a result was given a lesser sentence for agreeing to testify against him. This, in my opinion, is a case of woman empowerment terribly gone wrong. In fact, studies reveal that in Canada, just over 15 percent of convicted women have actually served their jail terms. The average stay for those unfortunate few who have served time is a little over 90 days for a single crime, and under six months for multiple crimes.
If Homolka’s case were tried in the United States, I believe that the facts and standards and the overall outcome would have been different. While plea-bargaining deals would have been given for testimonies against the other offender, the fact that Homolka and her husband murdered three people and raped one of them, the United States criminal justice system would have considered capital punishment first. Plea-bargaining would not have been the primary consideration. Also, I believe that the plea bargain deal would have been life imprisonment without the probability of parole.
Muraskin also presents the ‘Evil Women Theory’ in which the female who acts particularly violently, or in gender-defying or forbidden ways, is denied the protection of gender, thus, making her more eligible for death penalty if convicted of a capital crime offense. Because of the so-called of ‘protection of gender’, women have been given less grave criminal records than men, which accounts for fewer women being sentenced to death and ultimately executed (Muraskin, p. 577).
The ‘Equality Theory’ states that female offenders sentenced with capital punishment should be executed without prejudice under the law just because of their gender. Women who commit heinous crimes should, without consideration, be served the capital punishment. Under gender ‘women’ crimes as stated in the criminal justice system, Muraskin defines several women who were sentenced to death: On November 2, 1984, Velma Barfield was the first woman to have been executed in the United States during the Modern era of capital punishment.
Barfield was the first woman in 22 years to be executed in the state of North Carolina. Barfield was sentenced to death after confessing to have poisoned her mother and three other people, including her husband and boyfriend. Furthermore, Barfield said that she killed her boyfriend to hide forged charges in his checking account to purchase prescription drugs for her substance addiction. The jury found incriminating circumstances that the murder was based on pecuniary gain as well as the desire to avoid criminal liability (Death Penalty Information Center, 2000) (Muraskin, p.579).
Christina Riggs was another woman who was meted out the death penalty. Riggs was the fifth woman to be executed in the United States, and was the first to be sentenced to death in Arkansas via lethal injection. She was convicted for the pre-meditated murders of her five-year-old son and her two-year-old daughter. Riggs also confessed to the cold-blooded murder, saying that her intention was to suffocate her children since poisoning them did not succeed. She accounted that she also planned to kill herself.
Riggs stated that she murdered her two children because of a custody battle between her and her ex-husband. As the time of her execution came near, there were no protesters against the verdict and even the media did not cover the event. Riggs tried to appeal her case but the courts were resolute in their decision. By this time, Riggs herself realized the futility of her appeals and later on refused to ask the Governor of Arkansas for clemency. I believe that Gibbs deserved to be executed under capital punishment.
Hers was not an act of passion, self-defense or even a morally and socially accepted act. She cold-bloodedly and intentionally murdered her two children and for that she deserved death. I believe that in this particular case, capital punishment was the right and only acceptable conviction for Gibbs. To conclude, Muraskin suggests that capital punishment of female offenders has brought in a lot of changes in the criminal justice system since those specific years.
As she points out, the legal approaches of capital punishment throughout the years for cases of females on death row have evolved and changed significantly. Being one of the few remaining states with death penalty as capital punishment, it is very critical to check and balance how gender affects the full realization of justice, especially for female offenders in the death row. Indeed, justice should be served regardless of gender, or in this case, of the convicted being female.