“Women on Death Row: Invisible Subjects of Gender Discrimination”
California has the largest female death row in the U.S., with 23 condemned women imprisoned at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. Four women have been executed in the state since 1893, with the last, Elizabeth Duncan, killed in 1962.*
Texas is second with six women on its death row.
There are 54 condemned women in the U.S. as of October 2017, about two percent of the total death row population. Since 1973, 181 women have been sentenced to death in the United States.
These are just two of the findings in the report, “Judged for More Than Her Crime: A Global Overview of Women Facing the Death Penalty,” published by the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide to launch its Alice Project. The report “represents a first attempt to devote resources and attention to the experiences of women on death row, to develop human rights strategies around the application of capital punishment to women, and to invite international law to look to its own biases.”
The report, based on three years of research, estimates that at least 500 women are currently on death rows around the world, and that at least 100 women have been executed in the last 10 years.
Describing the female population as “much-neglected,” in comparison to juveniles, whose numbers on death row are about the same, the report notes that because so little research on these condemned women has been done, including the crimes they were accused of, the circumstances of their lives before sentencing, and the conditions under which they are imprisoned, there isn’t enough empirical data to analyze the patterns in sentencing, and the role of gender bias in the criminal legal system.
Among the report’s findings:
- Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the U.S. in 1976, 16 women on death row have been executed. Twelve were white, four were African-American.
- The average age of women on death row in the U.S. is 48.
- The most recent execution of a woman in the U.S. was Kelly Gissendaner in Georgia in 2015.
- China and Iran, the world’s leading executing countries, are also the lead executioners of women. China executes an estimated 20 to 100 women a year, Iran has executed at least 38 women in the past three years.
- While most women have been sentenced to death for murder, others are serving death sentences for such crimes as drug offenses, terrorism, adultery, witchcraft, and blasphemy.
- There is a universal prohibition on the execution of pregnant women, although in some countries they may be executed after giving birth.
- In violation of human rights law, researchers “found reports of solitary confinement for women on death row in China, Indonesia, Jordan, India, and the United States.”
The Alice Project is named for Alice Nungu, who was sentenced to death in 2003 in Malawi for killing her husband in self-defense as he was battering her. At that time, all murder convictions carried a mandatory death sentence. She was convicted by a non-unanimous jury that never heard evidence of her many years of abuse at the hands of her husband, who had also infected her with the HIV virus. She served 12 years on death row, where her physical and mental condition declined. In 2015, she was granted a resentencing hearing, five years after she was entitled to it, and was released. She died a few months later.
*This post has been updated to indicate that four women have been executed in California since 1893.
Founded in 1988, Death Penalty Focus is committed to the abolition of the death penalty through public education, grassroots organizing and political advocacy, media outreach, and domestic and international coalition building.