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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 5. Domestic Offenses


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Judias Buenoano and Betty Lou Beets

Within months after Karla Faye Tucker was put to death, Florida executed its first woman in the modern era, Judias Buenoano. Less than two years later, Texas followed when Betty Lou Beets was subjected to lethal injection. Neither case attracted the public attention Tucker had. Governors Lawton Chiles of Florida and George Bush of Texas seemed confident that they would not lose votes over these deaths. As Rapoport describes, the governors were released from the dilemma of either “bowing to pressure” not to execute a woman or “appearing blood thirsty.”1 They could stand behind the banner of formal equality and claim that gender equality prohibited any choice but death. Despite those claims, gender does lie at the very center of the Buenoano and Beets cases. They became candidates for capital punishment in the first place because of past histories that occurred because they were women.

But unlike Tucker who had defied stereotypes about death row and seemed warm and likeable, Buenoano and Beets fit into an old gender stereotype of women who kill. According to the popular media, they were “black widows,” husband killers. The term itself both trivializes their stories and dehumanizes the women. What they did is made analogous to the spider’s instinct, removing any need for understanding, explanation, or motive. Categorizing Buenoano and Beets as “black widows” creates a “psychic distance” between ← 95 | 96 → them and...

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