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Women and the death penalty

Should women be treated differently from men in the American criminal justice system?


Last September, Teresa Lewis became the first woman executed in Virginia in nearly 100 years.

AP photo

By Laura Bedard

On September 23rd of this year, Teresa Lewis, 41, was pronounced dead by the State of Virginia after she was injected by a lethal combination of drugs at the Greenville Correctional Center. Her sentence was carried out as punishment for hiring two people to kill her husband and stepson so she could collect insurance money. She was the first female to be executed in Virginia in 100 years. Supporters claimed she lacked the mental capacity to carry out such a crime and people all over the world (including many Europeans, who overwhelmingly oppose the death penalty) voiced their objections to her execution.

Dora Wright was the first woman executed in the United States. Wright, a 31-year-old African American woman, was put to death by hanging in 1903 for killing and torturing a 7-year-old child in her care. The jury took only 20 minutes to find her guilty and sentence her to death. Most people are unfamiliar with her case.

For some reason it is hard for the American public to accept the fact that women commit just as heinous crimes as their male counter parts. The execution of women has become an increasing concern in this country, manifested by public outcry and protests. Activists confront politicians to oppose the death penalty, and many argue laws regarding capital punishment shouldn’t be applied equally to women.

Eleven women have been executed in the United States since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated. Two in my own state of Florida: Judy Buenoano who was electrocuted in 1998 for poisoning her husband and drowning her son, and Aileen Wuornos, who was put to death by lethal injection in 2002 for killing six men. The movie “Monster” was written about Wuornos’s life and portrayed a mentally ill, frequently abused women lashing out at society and the men she felt had abused her. Watching the film, you can’t help but feel for her.

It is well understood that women commit crimes and come to prison under much different circumstances than their male counterparts. Women have higher rates of past trauma and abuse, and numerous studies link the early victimization of women to criminal behavior later in life. Women come to prison with higher rates of substance abuse, sexual abuse, incidents of self-harm and mental illness. Incarcerated women also access mental and medical health care at twice the rate of male offenders.

This topic gives rise to several questions. Should we treat the behavior and not the gender? Should early victimization and past trauma keep women from facing the same punishments as men who commit similar crimes? Or should equality prevail – should men and women be sentenced and incarcerated equally?

As the fervent debate surrounding Teresa Lewis showed, these questions are far from being answered. But they are questions we must consider as we continue to examine crime, punishment, and the role of women in the United States criminal justice system.

Laura E. Bedard began her work in corrections as a jail administrator in 1984. During her tenure as administrative faculty for the College of Criminology at Florida State University, she ran a study-abroad program in the Czech Republic lecturing on crime topics in an emerging democracy. In 2005, she became the first female Deputy Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. There she was responsible for 27,000 state employees and over 200,000 offenders in the third largest correctional system in the country. Dr. Bedard has published and lectured on a number of corrections-related topics including women in prison, mental health issues and correctional leadership. Dr. Bedard is currently serving as the Chief of Corrections for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Sanford, Florida.

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