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
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
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
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