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The Death Penalty On Women

The death penalty is rarely inflicted on women, even though women commit roughly one in ten criminal homicides where the gender of the offender is known (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2010b). (The percentage of women who commit death-eligible homicides is unknown.) Approximately 20,000 people have been legally executed in the United States since 1608, and about 3% (approximately 569) of those have been women; most of them (nearly 90%) were executed prior to 1866.

It is estimated that under current death penalty laws, if women and men were treated equally and no factor other than offense was considered, then women would receive between 4% and 6% of all death sentences . Under post–Furman statutes, however, women have received about 2% of all death sentences—2 to 8 death sentences a year—167 total between January 1, 1973, and late 2010. Only 12 women have been executed under super due process as of this writing. The reason is that from arrest through execution, women are filtered from the process.

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Streib (1993) identified two principal sources of this gender discrimination: (a) the conscious or sub–conscious attitudes of key actors in the criminal justice process and (b) death penalty laws, themselves. Streib contends that the aggravating and mitigating circumstances enumerated in death penalty laws bias the application of the death penalty in favor of women. For example, among aggravating factors that generally advantage women over men charged with capital crimes are those that pertain to (a) previous criminal record (women are less likely than men to have one), (b) premeditation (homicides by women tend to be unplanned and sudden acts), and (c) felony–murders (women are rarely involved in them). Mitigating factors that tend to advantage women involve: (a) committing a capital crime while under extreme mental or emotional disturbance (female murderers are perceived to be more emotionally disturbed than male murderers) and (b) acting under the substantial domination of another person (when both women and men are involved in a capital crime, the man is generally considered the principal actor)

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