Ms. Magazine

spring 2003
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this is what a feminist looks like

Features
The Feminist To-Do List by Gloria Steinem
Ms. Poll Feminist Tide Sweeps In as the 21st Century Begins by Lorraine Dusky
Affirmative Action on Trial by Teresa Stern
Women on Death Row by Claudia Dreifus
In the Thick of Life at 70 by Jessica Chornesky

Special Action Alert
Women Take Action Worldwide
Listing: Coalitions and Groups
National Council of Women's Organizations Statement on War with Iraq
NCWO Partial Members List
Why Peace is (More Than Ever) a Feminist Issue
by Grace Paley

Writing of War and Its Consequences
Ghosts of Home by Patricia Sarrafian Ward
Tales from an Ordinary Iranian Girlhood by Marjane Satrapi
Snow in Summer: LA, CA, 1963 by Helen Zelon

News
Pat Summitt's 800th Victory
Augusta Golf Club's Red Face
National Map of Priest Abuse
Women Warriors
Lesbians with Strollers
Kopp Trial
Trouble in Herat, Afghanistan
Reproductive Rights in Poland
Health Clinics in Guatemala
Congolese Women for Peace
Global Good News Round-Up
The Opposite of a Nuclear Bomb

Departments
Lower Breast Cancer Risks by Liz Galst
The Making of an Activist by Gloria Feldt
Nature Conservancy Gains by Rachel Rabkin
Harvard Stumbles on Rape Rules by Lorraine Dusky
The Bush Overhaul of Federal Courts by Stephanie B. Goldberg
My Friend Yeshi by Alice Walker

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Claudia Dreifus is a political journalist whose most recent Ms. article, "Berlin Diaries," recounted her trip to Germany to investigate the fate of family members during the Holocaust. Her most recent book is Scientific Conversations.


Women on Death Row
A Special Report by Claudia Dreifus

 

With all this new information and with the reality that Walter Rhodes, in his jail cell, was telling new versions of the old story the Federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the original conviction.

Thus, on October 9, 1992, Sonia Jacobs strode out into the Florida sunlight, a liberated woman in every sense of the word.

She is, to this day, one of only two condemned women-- the other is Sabrina Butler of Mississippi who've managed to return to what inmates call, "the free world."

As this is being written, there are 44 women sitting on death rows in some 14 states, less than 2% of the total among the condemned. In the 27 years since the Supreme Court revived capital punishment, ten women have been put to death. As the nation continues to debate the use of executions as a crime prevention strategy, the fate of these women is mostly absent from public discussion. They are a policy afterthought, as invisible in their potential deaths as they were in their lives.

The broad arguments against capital punishment, male and female, are widely known: It is applied unequally to the poor and unequally by race; innocent people have likely been executed; it does nothing to deter crime; it brutalizes all of society by heightening the general ambiance of violence. But when one examines the stories of the women on death rows around the country, all the rest seems doubly true. The females who draw death sentences seem to be the poorest of the poor, the most socially marginal, the least able to protect themselves in court with a well-funded and coherent defense.

And some of the women are doubtlessly innocent. Over 100 people have walked free from death row, victims of wrongful convictions. We can see the fallibility of the entire system by looking at the men. Since 1992 lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law have used DNA testing to exonerate 12 men who'd received death sentences and 21 others who were convicted of homicide but received lesser sentences. In many of their cases, they were able to show they were absolutely not the perpetrators of crimes they'd been convicted of. There's no reason to doubt that the wrongful conviction rate for women is just as high, said Mr. Scheck.

For a great many of the women, however, the big issue is not so much wrongful conviction, but over-prosecution such things as the upgrading of charges and the ignoring of mitigating circumstances such as self-defense or a history of abuse or even mental illness.

The ACLU is conducting a study, due out later this year, on women on death row and the systemic elements of unfairness in how they got there. Over-prosecution-- that fact of death in so many female capital cases-- is being looked at, and Diann Rust-Tierney, director of their Capital Punishment Project, has indications it's widespread.

This reporter spoke with four different capital defense lawyers, who each noted that when it comes to women on death row, over-prosecution is one factor they often share. A lot of the women are overcharged, reports Aundre Herron, a staff attorney for the California Appellate Project, which files appeals for the condemned. A case that probably was manslaughter or second degree murder is charged as a capital crime. It should have been charged as a lesser crime because, maybe, the person's mental state wasn't right. That makes her an easy target for an ambitious prosecutor.
What makes these women such easy targets is often their unconventionality. Regardless of the validity of claims of mitigating circumstances, juries will be less sympathetic to a woman who's lived an untraditional lifestyle or committed a crime thought to be unwomanly. Perhaps this is because women, regardless of race, are often punished for being rebellious, sexual, or violent, or for otherwise breaking the expectations of gender.

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