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Wretched Sisters

Examining Gender and Capital Punishmend

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Mary Welek Atwell

Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, fourteen women have been put to death in the United States. The criminal justice system defines crimes committed by women in a particularly gendered context. Wretched Sisters is unique in its analysis of the legal and cultural circumstances that determine why a small number of women are sentenced to death and provides a detailed account of how these fourteen women came to be subjected to the ultimate punishment.
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Chapter 2. A Capriciously Selected Random Handful

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A CAPRICIOUSLY SELECTED RANDOM HANDFUL

The Supreme Court and the Death Penalty

Between 1632 when Jane Champion became the first female to be executed in America and 2014 when Texas put Suzanne Basso to death by lethal injection, 571 women and girls have been hanged, gassed, electrocuted, or injected with toxic drugs. Fifty-three of those deaths have occurred since 1900. However, only fourteen executions, those that are the subject of this book, have taken place since the United States Supreme Court began to scrutinize the administration of the death penalty to determine whether its use was consistent with the Constitution.

Under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1950s and 1960s, the Court embarked on the process of incorporating the provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states. Included among the Court’s rulings were decisions that required the states to adhere to the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Because the terms “cruel and unusual” are difficult to define objectively, the Court has had to provide concrete meanings for those words and to develop guidelines for punishments that conform to the Constitution. In Trop v. Dulles,1 the Court ruled that if punitive measures violated “evolving standards of decency,” those sanctions were unconstitutional.

Although not a death penalty case, in Trop the Court found that “the basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is the dignity of man.” ← 25 | 26 → The words...

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