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Wretched Sisters

Examining Gender and Capital Punishmend


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 4. She Didn’t Look Like a Killer


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Karla Faye Tucker

Karla Faye Tucker humanized executions. Unlike the hundreds of other “insentient beings” whose names and faces do not matter to the general public, Tucker looked and spoke like someone TV audiences could relate to. People thought they “knew” Karla Faye Tucker and, at least briefly, they cared about her.1 The photogenic woman, the second to be put to death after the reinstatement of capital punishment, was white, articulate, attractive, and Christian. She had the characteristics that should ordinarily afford protected status in America. The paradoxes this case presented—the horrific crime for which Tucker admitted guilt coexisting with her post-conviction, post-conversion persona—forced consideration of the purposes of capital punishment. Because Tucker was clearly a murderer but just as clearly an outstanding role model for rehabilitation, her case defied simple analysis. Even Governor George Bush, who rejected her petition for clemency, apparently felt he had to justify that decision. He claimed that he agonized over Tucker’s case in ways he apparently did not in the other 151 executions over which he presided.

Fourteen years had passed since North Carolina put Velma Barfield to death in 1984. Until Texas executed Tucker, it was still possible that Barfield’s case had been an aberration, explainable by the political context in which it occurred. Many of the questions raised about Barfield’s execution ← 71 | 72 → were revisited in the Tucker case. There was the...

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