Sexism and the death chamber

Chivalry lives when a woman must die.

Published May 4, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

On Tuesday night in Varner, Ark., 28-year-old Christina Marie Riggs was executed for the 1997 murders of her two small children. She was given a lethal injection of potassium chloride, the drug she had originally planned to use to kill her children. (She suffocated them after a botched attempt of the drugging plan.)

Riggs, a former nurse, was put to death despite pleas for her life from anti-death-penalty groups including Amnesty International and the American Civil Libertes Union. In fact, there was little difference between the execution of Riggs and the other 28 executions carried out in the United States so far this year, except that Riggs, who said she wanted to die to be with her "babies," had refused to appeal her sentence or to seek clemency from Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

And yet her death was much bigger news.

The cause for intense public soul-searching and beating of breasts was not the nature of Riggs' crime or her wish to die. It was her gender. It was, for all intents and purposes, a demonstration of garden-variety sexism. And this isn't the first time our hypocrisy has been blatantly displayed.

Riggs was the first woman to be executed in Arkansas in 150 years, and only the fifth executed in the nation since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the ban on capital punishment in 1976. Obviously, the very rarity of women's executions makes them newsworthy. But this is only the statistical manifestation of the stubborn gender discrimination that taints our attitude about capital punishment in this country.

Whether one sees the death penalty as justice or barbarism (and, for the record, I have no moral objection to imposing it for premeditated murder, though the risk of the state taking an innocent life is troubling enough to warrant opposition to the practice), surely the perpretrator's gender should be irrelevant.

But that is not the way it works in the real world. We are consistently more likely to seek mitigating circumstances for women's heinous deeds, to see female criminals as disturbed or victimized rather than evil. The thought of a woman in the death chamber makes people cringe -- even those who have no problem with sending a man to his death for his crimes.

It appears that chivalry still lives when a woman must die.

Two years ago, there were many more headlines and much more debate as Karla Faye Tucker awaited execution in Texas for a brutal double murder. Tucker had become a born-again Christian and her clemency petition was backed by such unusual suspects as Christian Coalition leader Pat Robertson, Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell and right-wing hero Oliver North -- all generally pro-capital punishment.

While most of Tucker's champions insisted that redemption and not womanhood was the issue, none had intervened on behalf of male murderers who had experienced similar death-row conversions. And there was ample evidence to suggest that the support for "this sweet woman of God," as Robertson put it, was not entirely gender-neutral.

On CNN's "Crossfire," when asked if the crusade to save Tucker was an instance of "misplaced chivalry," North gallantly replied, "I don't think chivalry can ever be misplaced" -- though he went on to insist that "gender is not a factor." Meanwhile, on the left, the chivalrous Geraldo Rivera dispensed with any pretense of neutrality and issued a bizarre plea to Texas Gov. George W. Bush on his CNBC show: "Please, don't let this happen. This is -- it's very unseemly. Texas, manhood, macho swagger ... What are ya, going to kill a lady? Oh, jeez. Why?"

The lady in question, by the way, had used a pickax to dispatch two sleeping people (one of whom had made her angry by parking his motorbike in her living room) and later bragged that she experienced an orgasm with every swing.

Some criminal justice experts, such as Victor Streib, dean of the law college at Ohio Northern University, argue that the double standard favoring women kicks in long before the final death watch, and that women offenders are "screened out at all levels of the system." Women commit about 10 percent of all murders in the U.S., yet receive only about 2 percent of the death sentences and account for about 1 percent of death-row inmates, since their sentences are more often commuted or reversed.

True, numbers don't tell the whole story. Male killers are more likely to have committed the kinds of crimes that make them eligible for a death sentence, from cop-killing to murder during the commission of another crime such as robbery. When women kill, their victims are more likely to be family members, including their own children -- which, rightly or not, tends to be treated as a lesser crime.

Still, it is worth noting that while women commit nearly 30 percent of spousal murders (excluding homicides ruled to be in self-defense), they account for only 15 percent of prisoners sentenced to death for killing a spouse.

And the disparity between the treatment of male and female defendants can be stunning when you look beyond the numbers. In 1995, Texas executed Jesse Dewayne Jacobs for a murder that, by the prosecutors' admission, was committed by his sister Bobbie Jean Hogan. It was Hogan who had gotten her brother to help her abduct Etta Ann Urdiales -- her boyfriend's ex-wife who was making vexatious demands for child support -- and who had actually pulled the trigger.

When Hogan went on trial, separately from her brother and co-conspirator, her lawyers managed to persuade the jury that the gun went off accidentally and obtained a verdict of involuntary manslaughter. She received a 10-year prison sentence.

Maybe we don't know for certain that gender bias played a role in these different outcomes. Two male accomplices in a crime can receive strikingly disparate sentences, since much depends on the personalities of the jurors and the quality of the defense. But it's hardly a stretch to conclude that gender matters. Jurors may not intentionally go easy on women, but they may be far more inclined to believe that a gun was not fired on purpose if it was in a woman's hands. How many times have we seen that one in the movies?

And then there is the perennial persuader in consideration of a woman's fate before the law: sympathy. When Susan Smith sent her two little sons into the muddy waters of a lake strapped into their car seats, apparently because they were an obstacle to her love life, and made up a story about a black carjacker, she was initially denounced as a cold-blooded monster.

Yet even her image underwent a gradual shift, with revelations that she had been molested by her stepfather as a teen (even though, somewhat less sympathetically, she had continued carrying on an affair with him as an adult and married woman) and suggestions that her no-good husband was really to blame for her anguish (even though there was little reason to believe that he was any more responsible for the breakdown of the marriage than she was). "This is not a case about evil," Smith's attorney, Judy Clarke, told the jury that gave her life in prison. "It is about despair and sadness."

Smith may have cut a pitiable figure. So, apparently, did Guinevere Garcia, who fatally shot her husband for his insurance money 14 years after she had suffocated her 11-month-old daughter -- and whose death sentence was commuted to life in prison by Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar in 1996.

Garcia had been sexually abused as a child and was an alcoholic prostitute by the age of 15. But the same was true of Jesse Timmendequas, the sex offender awaiting execution in New Jersey for strangling five-year-old Megan Kanka, the child who gave her name to "Megan's law." According to trial evidence, Timmendequas had been brutally beaten and sodomized by his father.

In fact, nearly half of male death-row inmates claim to have been physically abused in their childhood, while more than 1 in 4 say that they were sexually molested. Of course, some of these claims of victimization may be self-serving, but then again, not every woman's abuse excuse is the gospel truth.

Of course, not everyone champions gender neutrality when it comes to crime and punishment. Some find the fair sex to be justified in getting unfair treatment. "Women and men do occupy separate places in the collective psyche of society, " Jonathan Last wrote in the conservative Weekly Standard shortly after Tucker's execution. "Because society has a low tolerance for seeing them harmed, women -- even criminals -- have traditionally been treated differently by the justice system. Differently, but still, at least possibly, with justice. The loss of that difference is part of what makes [the] destruction of Karla Faye Tucker so disturbing."

This sort of paternalism -- which, as Last explicitly stated, also provides the justification for keeping women out of combat forces -- seems precisely the sort of sugar-and-spice rationalization that feminists ought to oppose. Yet they have remained largely silent on the subject, for several reasons. One is that when feminism becomes a movement for the advantage of women (rather than for equal treatment), complaining about favoritism toward women doesn't make a lot of sense.

Many also find it hard to admit the basic fact that in Western societies in the modern era, patriarchal norms have revolved less around the subjugation of women through violence -- one of the feminists' favorite themes -- than around less protectiveness toward women.

Far from denouncing double standards, many feminists have contributed to the excuse-making. When Betty Lou Beets, 62, was facing execution in Texas in February for the murder of her fifth husband, Jimmy Don Beets, battered women's advocates rallied to her defense, portraying her as a victim of years of domestic abuse. Beets had been convicted of shooting and wounding her second husband, Bill Lane, and had been charged but never tried in the 1981 death of husband No. 4, Doyle Barker. Beets had never claimed to have been battered during her trial, and had tried to blame the slaying on her two children.

Even when the death penalty is not at issue and even when there are no allegations of physical abuse, murderous women can still qualify for lifesaving prizes in the victim sweepstakes.

Some years ago, Betty Broderick, the California housewife who killed her wealthy ex-husband and his young new wife -- and claimed that the divorce and the alimony payments of $16,000 a month amounted to "white-collar domestic violence" -- became the subject of sympathetic profiles in Ladies Home Journal and Mirabella.

An essay in a feminist anthology on women and violence, "No Angels" (1996), lamented that support for battered women who fight back had not extended to "fighting back against an emotionally abusive husband" and denounced a TV movie portraying Broderick in a negative light as "misogynist."

Contrary to all the evidence, feminists also have asserted that it's women who are treated with extra harshness by the system. In her 1996 book "Still Unequal: The Shameful Truth About Women and Justice in America," Lorraine Dusky asserts that women receive "more severe sentences" for stereotypically male crimes, though she cites no evidence to support this. But according to a 1989 Bureau of Justice Statistics study, male violent offenders were more than twice as likely as women charged with similar crimes to be incarcerated for more than a year.

Other research has found that, even when factors such as severity of the offense and prior criminal record are taken into account, women are more likely to have charges dismissed or to receive a light sentence.

Advocates for battered women also have claimed that a woman who kills her mate is sentenced to an average of 15 to 20 years in prison, while a man gets two to six years. This appalling factoid seems to be pure fiction. A Justice Department study of domestic homicides paints a very different picture: Husbands who killed their wives received an average of 16.5 years in prison; wives who killed husbands got six years. While some of the disparity was due to the fact that more women had been "provoked" -- assaulted or threatened -- before the slaying, the study noted that "the average prison sentence for unprovoked wife defendants was seven years, or 10 years shorter than the average 17 years for the unprovoked husband defendants."

If one truly believes in the full equality of the sexes, it's not difficult to see that protectiveness toward women, whether motivated by chivalry or feminism, keeps us from acheiving a legitimate goal. As Patricia Pearson argues in her 1997 book "When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence," making excuses for women's violence ultimately strips them of moral agency and accountability. What does it say about women's ability to function in society, to be workers and leaders, if they are seen as more vulnerable to pressure and more easily forgiven for failing to cope with their emotional problems?

If women are to be treated as adults, we cannot recoil from the execution of a woman the way we do from the execution of a juvenile. The debate about capital punishment should focus on humanity, not womanhood. To demand equality -- yet ask for a special right to clemency -- just won't do.

By Cathy Young

Cathy Young is the author of "Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality."

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