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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 12. Lessons from Wretched Sisters


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· 12 ·


We return to the major question that began this book. Why these few? After giving each case detailed attention, is it possible to state that Velma Barfield, Karla Faye Tucker, Betty Lou Beets, Wanda Jean Allen, Marilyn Plantz, Lois Nadean Smith, Christina Riggs, Judias Buenoano, Lynda Block, Aileen Wuornos, Frances Newton, Teresa Lewis, Kimberly McCarthy, and Suzanne Basso were the “worst of the worst?” Were they criminals whose offenses were so heinous and whose responsibility was so clear that the world has become better since their deaths? If not, how do we explain that they were singled out for execution?

The Decision to Prosecute

The first stage of the process that puts certain offenders on the road to the death chamber is the prosecutor’s decision to charge them with a capital offense. Since Gregg v. Georgia1 the states with capital punishment have listed specific aggravating factors in their criminal laws. Prosecutors must work within those guidelines. However, as discussed earlier, the aggravating factors often include such vague descriptors as “heinous, atrocious, or cruel” allowing the state a great deal of latitude. Is it possible that some crimes are more ← 295 | 296 → heinous, more atrocious, or crueler when committed by a woman? Are they worse if the victim is a man? So it would seem. There are no statistics telling how many of the men executed since 1977 killed family members or intimate partners. But...

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