Earl Ofari Hutchinson's take on the politics of the day
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Just about the only time that an execution will raise more than eyebrow is when a woman is scheduled to be put to death. This was certainly the case with condemned Georgia murderer Kelly Gissendaner. Pope Francis chimed in and pleaded for Georgia to spare her life. Tens of thousands signed a petition pleading for mercy. Gissendaner’s daughters, who also happened to be the daughters of the man whom she was complicit in his murder in 1997, also pleaded for her life. The compelling reasons for their pleas were that she was a model prisoner, counseled numbers of other inmates, and that the actual killer of her husband was her boyfriend who did not get the death penalty. But the big, and unstated reason, was she was a woman. Georgia hadn’t executed a woman in 70 years. And since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 only 15 women have been put to death according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
This more than anything guaranteed that her claim would get noticed. Gissendaner’s case, though, is hardly unusual. Women commit more than one in 10 murders. But only one in 50 convicted women murderers get the death penalty, and few of those sentences are ever carried out. Female executions account for slightly more than 1 percent of executions.
Women are far more likely than men to get their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. Which is exactly what the Georgia parole board had the option of granting. But it declined.
In one sense, the squeamishness over executing women is a good thing, In fact, this is one of the rare times that it can truly be said that the gender bias that riddles the death penalty as much as racial and class bias has saved the lives of a lot of women who kill. But that doesn’t make it any less problematic that this is the rationale for saving their lives. Prosecutors regard women as less violent, less threatening and more emotionally unstable than men. If they kill and maim, they supposedly do it out of blind love or loyalty to a man. Gissendaner is the near textbook example of that. This reinforces the notion that women are the dainty sex in need of guidance, protection and, ultimately, male control. This strips them of any social and moral accountability for and control over their acts. It makes it even easier to marginalize women.
Husbands and boyfriends physically and emotionally savage many women. Yet, if women kill their mate, courts more often than not consider it self-defense. They are not branded or demonized as dangerous, violent sociopaths. When that argument doesn’t fit, and women kill for the same reasons men do, many prosecutors, judges and juries still are reluctant to impose the death penalty. If they do impose it, there’s a similar reluctance to carry out the sentence.
That happened some years ago in the case of pick-ax murderer Karla Faye Tucker in Texas. Before Tucker was executed in 1998, conservative evangelicals Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, both death penalty hard-liners, rallied to her defense and demanded that she not be put to death. Robertson publicly called her “a sweet woman of God.” Robertson and the evangelicals claimed they backed her because of her jailhouse born-again Christian conversion. But scores of men have also grabbed at the Bible and found God on death row. There’s no record that Robertson or the others called any of them “sweet men of God” and leaped to their defense.
The gender double-standard has raised howls from some condemned men, death penalty opponents and even some feminists, who argue that gender, just as race and wealth, should play no role in determining who lives and who dies in the nation’s death chambers. However, that argument won’t get any further than the argument that racial bias is ample reason to dump the death penalty. The Supreme Court put that to rest years ago when it ruled in McCleskey vs. Kemp, which mandated that generalized statistics of race were insufficient to invalidate a death sentence. For a defendant to have any chance of having his sentence overturned, he’d have to prove that the death penalty was imposed based on racial bias in his particular case, something that is usually very difficult to prove.
Even if more women wound up on death rows, and were executed as fast as or faster than men, it wouldn’t make the death penalty any fairer or less barbaric than it already is. While gender bias perpetuates stereotypes of female victimization and warped notions of male chivalry, it still offers some hope that prosecutors, judges and juries are willing to put legal fairness and human compassion before the bloodlust to legally kill. This should be the case regardless of whether the accused is Kelly Gissendaner, or a man.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of Torpedoing Hillary: The GOP Plan to Stop a Clinton White House (Amazon ebook). He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Los Angeles and KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network