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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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Introduction to the Second Edition


When Wretched Sisters was first published in 2007, I hoped there would never be a need for a second edition, that no more women would be executed in the United States. After the execution of Frances Newton in 2005, five years passed before another woman, Teresa Lewis, was put to death in Virginia. Then in 2013 and 2014, Texas executed Kimberly McCarthy and Suzanne Basso. With three recent executions, it seems there is a reason to update this work. The second edition offers a chance to see what has changed and what has remained the same.

Most observers would agree that the climate surrounding capital punishment is different from the atmosphere of the late twentieth century, even from the atmosphere of seven years ago. Although the death penalty still has many strong supporters, there is also more vigorous and widespread opposition. Statistics bear this out. Since 2007, five states—New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, and Maryland—have abolished capital punishment. New York’s highest court found its capital statute unconstitutional and that state’s death row has been demolished. Governors of Oregon and Washington have each declared a moratorium on executions. Perhaps even more revealing of changes in attitude toward capital punishment, the number of death sentences per year has decreased from over 300 in the late 1990s to ← 1 | 2 → 80 in 2013. Likewise the number of executions carried out has declined from 98 in 1999 to 39 in 2013.

Public support for capital...

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