Debating Women and the Death Penalty

Exploring gender bias in the case of Teresa Lewis

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On Thursday night, Virginia executed 41-year-old Teresa Lewis. It was the first time a woman was executed in the state since 1912 and the first time any woman was executed in the U.S. in five years. There are a number of controversial details surrounding the case (Lewis has an IQ between 70 and 72, which makes her borderline mentally retarded). However, a number of criminal-justice observers are homing in on how our legal system treats female murderers differently from their male counterparts. Is there gender bias? Should there be?

  • Women Are Treated Worse in Our Justice System, writes Dr. Wednesday Martin at Psychology Today: "Women who kill have a special place in our cultural consciousness--on some deep level that we may or may not be aware of, we likely feel that a female murderer is more depraved, more 'unnatural,' than a male one. And this might lead all of us--not only the public, but also ostensibly neutral judges as well--to feel particularly outraged, and to call for especially harsh 'justice' that isn't just."

The reason it's so hard to separate capital punishment from gender bias is that the whole capital punishment machine is hugely gender-biased, and always has been. Capital punishment has to be one of the most sexist systems left in America. Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977, only 11 of the 1,224 people executed have been women. Victor Streib, a professor of law at Ohio Northern University and an expert on gender bias, noted in 1996 that while women comprise 13 percent of arrests for murder, they receive only 2 percent of the death sentences. "It's like there's something more valuable about women's lives," he has said. "Women are also treated differently when they're victims."

But who's really going to argue for gender parity in state-sanctioned execution? Is anyone out there celebrating Lewis' shattering of another glass ceiling this week? Hard to imagine even the staunchest feminist insisting that if women commit 10 percent of the murders, they should compose 10 percent of those executed for it.

  • If We Have a Death Penalty, Women Shouldn't Be Exempt, writes Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns and Money: "I don't believe that Lewis should be executed -- but that's because I oppose the death penalty. If she is to be spared, certainly her gender should be irrelevant... My solution is to level up to a higher standard of human rights rather than level down to a lower one. But as long as the death penalty is given, it's impossible to argue that women should be exempt from it."
  • This May Clear the Way for More Female Executions, writes Carol Williams at The Los Angeles Times: "The lethal-injection death of Teresa Lewis... broke with a tradition of societal 'queasiness' about executing women, one legal expert said. It could also psychologically clear the way to carrying out death sentences on others among the 60 condemned women in the nation -- including 18 in California, according to some capital punishment observers."
  • Why Does It Matter That She's a Woman at All? asks Monica Potts at The American Prospect: "Nearly all the stories I've seen mention how rare it is for women to be executed...Stories about an inmate facing the death penalty wouldn't mention race unless it was germane for a particular reason: mentioning gender in this instance should be uncalled for, too. What is important is that the crime was particularly heinous and there are questions lingering about the case: how often we execute women doesn't have a role to play in conversations about problems with the death penalty."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.