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Extreme Sentences for Women in the U.S.: An Overview

by Ashleigh Dye

On January 14, 2022, Texas 138th District Court Judge Gabriela Garcia set an execution date for Melissa Lucio: April 27, 2022. That is when the 53-year-old will face death for her 2008 conviction of murdering her two-year-old daughter, a charge she still denies. It will also be the first state killing of a woman since the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) executed Lisa Montgomery on January 12, 2021. That emptied BOP’s death row of women. But there are still 52 condemned women in state prisons, some of whom, like Lucio and Christa Pike, inch closer to execution.

Pike has been on Tennessee’s death row since 1996, when she was convicted of murdering Colleen Slemmer, 19, a fellow attendee at a Knoxville youth job program, over suspicions that Slemmer was trying to steal Parker’s 17-year-old boyfriend. On August 27, 2020, state Attorney General Herbert Slatery (R) asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to set her execution date. In response, her attorneys filed for a commutation of her sentence on June 7, 2021.

Pike’s fate is intertwined both by gender and circumstances with that of Montgomery, who was the first U.S. woman executed since 1953 and one of 11 people put to death in what Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor called a “spree” in the waning days of the administration of former Pres. Donald J. Trump (R).

One of those circumstances: The death penalty is reserved for particularly heinous crimes. Pike kept a piece of Slemmer’s skull in her pocket as a souvenir. Montgomery, after she strangled Bobbie Jo Stinett, cut the eight-month-old fetus from her womb and tried to pass the child off as her own.

But there’s another circumstance these women share: A history of severe trauma. Montgomery’s childhood was marred by gang rape and sex-trafficking, mostly by family members, leaving her brain-damaged and severely mentally ill, her attorney said. Pike’s attorneys said her mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy meant that “[b]efore she was even born, she suffered brain damage.” Her mom’s boyfriends then abused and raped her as a child, they added, leaving her bipolar and with post-traumatic stress disorder.

One of 15 Women in State and Federal Prisons Effectively
Serving a Life Sentence

In the U.S., there were about 222,000 incarcerated women in 2019, just under half of whom—107,955—were held in state and federal prisons. More than 6,600 of those, one in 15, have been sentenced to what is or is likely to be a life sentence: life with the possibility of parole, life without parole, or a term of 50 years or more. By contrast, as of 2021 about 97% of the 204,000 Americans serving life sentences were men, or one in seven male prisoners. But the gap is closing. From 2018 to 2020, according to the Sentencing Project, the number of women lifers rose 43% compared to 29% for men.

In addition to the Federal government, there are currently 27 states that allow death sentences for women. In the U.S., there are 52 condemned women and another 2,000 incarcerated for life without parole (LWOP). Both of these groups have essentially been sentenced to die in prison. There are 15 states with women on death row; there are only six states that do not have a woman serving LWOP.

The characteristics of women serving these harsh sentences are notable. One in 39 incarcerated Black women is serving LWOP; for white women the number is one in 59. Of the total number of women serving LWOP sentences, 6% are Latinx. Nationally, of the 52 women on death row, 42% are women of color. Most of the women serving either LWOP or a death sentence are incarcerated for homicide.

According to the FBI Supplementary Homicide Report, 49% of women who commit homicides are Black, while 48% are white. Thus Black women are prosecuted for homicides at around eight times their percentage of the general population.

Studying the age when women’s homicide offenses were committed, researchers have found they were older than males convicted of murder. Two-thirds of women who commit homicide are 25 or older, while 48% of men who murder are younger than 25. The average age of a woman on death row was 36 when her crime was committed, and women serving LWOP were on average 33 years old. However, there are at least 32 women serving LWOP for an offense they committed when they were under the age of 18, one of whom was only 14.

In 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court (USSC) ruled the death penalty was unconstitutional for individuals who committed their crime when they were under the age of 18. However, two women are on death row for crimes they committed when they were 18, part of the 20% who were under 25 when they committed their offense.

That is the age science has shown at which the adolescent brain is fully developed. Until then, individuals have a harder time controlling their behavior and also cannot foresee results or consequences that may result from the actions they take. USSC has issued a series of rulings that differentiate culpability for violent offenses for individuals under the age of 18, but perhaps what science really shows is that the age needs to be 25.

While all women facing capital punishment were convicted of a homicide-related offense, many did not actually kill the victim themselves. These so-called felony-murder convictions are even more common for women serving LWOP.

Mandatory-minimum sentencing laws also require that each person convicted must receive the same amount of time without taking into account age, race, or gender. So a woman playing a lesser part in the crime—many are the getaway driver—or who was coerced into the crime by an intimate partner, is not permitted to have those factors taken into account.

Data collected on homicides committed between 2000 and 2005 by women now serving LWOP shows that 50% of the victims were intimate partners or family members. Only 20% of men convicted of homicide targeted the same type of victims.

In the 12 years between 2008 and 2020, the number of women incarcerated for committing a violent offense increased 2%. In addition, the number of women serving a life sentence increased by 19%, along with a 43% increase in women serving LWOP sentences.

Pernicious Effect of Trauma

While these extreme sentences are frequent, there is one factor that seems to have a correlation, but little to no consideration seems to be given to its role in crimes committed by women: trauma.

Just like Lisa Montgomery and Christa Pike, nearly all women who perpetrate violence have first been victims of it. A staggering one-third of women incarcerated on a life sentence has tried to commit suicide. We now know some of the impacts that physical, sexual, and even verbal abuse have on criminal activities. Many women who commit violent crime were affected by the abuse of an intimate partner. Data from a study of 99 women incarcerated with a life sentence revealed that 17% had killed their intimate partner.

Even with the data and knowledge of the effects that trauma can have, trauma is still rarely recognized as a mitigating factor for crimes committed. Fortunately, New York lawmakers have passed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA), Criminal Procedure Law § 440.47(1), which allows relief for people who have been sentenced to eight years or more for an offense in which domestic abuse played a significant part.

There are limitations on offenses to which the law applies, and several, such as first-degree murder, second-degree murder and sex offenses, are excluded. Still reformers say that DVSJA is a step in the right direction to recognizing the correlation between violent crime and trauma, a development that may eventually inform men’s sentencing, too. For now efforts remain focused on protecting women from a legal world that does not differentiate them from men.  

Source: ACLU, Amnesty International, Death Penalty Information Center, Injustice Watch, Intercept, KETV, KMTV, NPR, Nashville Scene, New York Post, Sentencing Project, US News

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