"If there is a common thread
that ties the women on death row together, it is the
fact that they have not lived up to some societal
norm," suggests Kathleen O'Shea, a former nun
who edits the newsletter "Women on the Row"
and who has developed an informal ministry among them.
O'Shea is also the author of the most authoritative
academic textbook on the subject, Women and the
Death Penalty in the United States: 1900-1998.
"As a society, we continue to demand that women
behave in a certain way and we punish women who do
not. This is clearly illustrated by the legal term
'unfit mother'. No man has ever stood before a judge,
or served time, or been executed for being an 'unfit
Almost 20 years after her trial,
Sunny Jacobs would meet a man who'd sat on her jury.
"He said that one reason they wanted the death
penalty, she recalled, was that they wanted to make
an example of a woman, and that would send a clear
message to those criminals out there."
Though the facts in her case were
different from Ms. Jacobs's, Brittany Marlowe Holberg's
status as a prostitute and crack addict were central
to how an Amarillo, Texas jury reacted to her claims
of self-defense in her 1998 murder trial.
She'd killed an elderly man, A. B.
Towery, 80, and had left behind a horrible and bloody
crime scene 58 stab wounds on the dead man. Holberg,
then 25, claimed Towery was a client who'd attacked
her; she'd been defending herself, there had been
a struggle, and in a cocaine-induced madness she had
Though she presented supportive evidence
for her story; though there was testimony to the victim's
violent history with his ex-wife and children; though
a psychiatrist testified that Brittany was suffering
from battered wife syndrome, post-traumatic stress
disorder, and a cocaine addiction, the jurors found
it hard to believe that an elderly citizen could have
employed a prostitute.
In doing this, they dismissed the
underpinnings of Brittany's defense. "My father
didn t even like the word 'sex' ; he was old fashioned,"
one of Mr. Towery's son swore in the courtroom.
Never mind that a former prostitute,
Diana Eileen Wheeler, testified that she'd had something
like ten dates with Towery in 1994; she'd even taught
him how to clean the stains off of his Mel Mac dinnerware.
Never mind that elderly men, even puritanical ones,
have been known to employ the services of sex workers.
The prosecutor just rolled his eyes to the jury in
disbelief, an action that seemed to be enough to discredit
whatever Wheeler told them.
Once the D.A. had his conviction nailed down, he won
a death sentence against Brittany, who had no prior
record of violence against anyone, by bringing in
jailhouse informants who swore that she had made all
manner of bloodthirsty confessions to them.
Today, Brittany Holberg is 30, and
one of eight women awaiting execution on the female
death row at the Mountain View unit of the Texas prison
system in Gatesville, an aptly named town with six
different jails within it. The Mountain View unit
is where the condemned women stay while their appeals
wind their way through federal and state courts. Should
their appeals fail, they are sent down to the men's
prison in Huntsville, some 180 miles away, where they
are put to death by lethal injection.
Ms. Holberg is currently contesting
her conviction through writ of habeas corpus proceedings,
charging ineffective representation and prosecutorial
misconduct at trial. Soon after her appeals lawyer
filed her writ, the Randall County D.A. asked to be
recused from arguing the case. According to the Amarillo
Globe-News, Holberg's two- inch-thick habeas
corpus filing includes several affidavits from women
who admit to being convicted of crimes, alleging [the
D.A.] and his employees attempted to make deals to
elicit false testimony against Holberg.
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