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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 First Edition


Since 2004 when I began researching and writing this book, I have found a common response among friends, students, and colleagues when I explain its subject. Of the fourteen women executed in the last thirty years, most people recognize only the names of Karla Faye Tucker and Aileen Wuornos. The others are anonymous. They were poor, often uneducated, not particularly attractive women, who, in most cases led difficult lives. When we talk about the small number of women who have been put to death for murder, people usually assume there are so few because the criminal justice system is reluctant to execute women, that they receive some sort of special treatment based on their sex. Many see this as part of a historic attitude of chivalry.

I posed the question to my students, “Suppose Lizzie Borden had been Larry Borden. How would the story be different?” We were discussing the 1892 ax murders of Andrew Borden and his wife Abigail. Thirty-two year-old Lizzie, a spinster who lived at home, was arrested and charged a week after the murders. Although she never gave a coherent account of her activities on the morning of the deaths and although no other suspect was ever identified, Lizzie was found “not guilty” of the two bloody killings. ← 5 | 6 →

The students answered immediately that “Larry” would have been denied the special favoritism, the “chivalry” that acquitted Lizzie of the murder of her father and stepmother. They agreed with the...

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