Quirky Gender Bias in the Death Penalty

Quirky Gender Bias in the Death Penalty
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Linda Carty is the rarest of rarities. She's a British subject who once sang for the Prince of Wales. She's a principal in a film documentary. She's garnered massive international media, legal and political attention and support. She worked as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency. And she's a grandmother. This last notation is mentioned only because that makes her one of only a handful of grandmothers who have ever been scheduled to be executed in a capital case. Carty was convicted of a murder, that she denies committing.
She could be executed in or before June in Texas if the Supreme Court turns down her appeal. It's her last; every other court has rejected her plea for a new trial. The odds on paper that the high court will dump her death sentence are long. The Court considers only about one in 30 death penalty appeal cases.

Carty's story is unique not just because of her life, but because her pending execution tosses another hideous glare on the plight of women that face execution. The one time that executions stir more than a public yawn is when a woman is scheduled to die. In 2009, the 53 women on America's death row made up less than two percent of prisoners sentenced to death. Eleven have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Carty's plea is a virtual template for the other death row appellants in Texas. They claim lousy representation, tainted evidence a rush to judgment by cops and prosecutors, and a rubber stamp verdict by a judge and jury.

In Texas, their protest of legal taint, racial bias and pitiable defense attorneys is notorious. Yet it almost always falls on deaf ears in the state and appellate courts. In most cases, the condemned are eventually executed. But Carty is a woman, and a foreigner to boot with British officials putting legal and diplomatic muscle behind getting her death sentence squashed. This guarantees that her claim would get noticed.

But Carty's case also spotlight another quirk in the tortured, contradictory, and confused application of the death penalty, and that's there's twisted gender bias buried deep in the death penalty. Women are far more likely than men to get their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

The gender bias that riddles the death penalty as much as racial and class bias is a good thing in that it saves the lives of women. What's problematic 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. 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. Carty's case typifies that. Carty says that four men kidnapped the victim, a woman, in a murder for hire scheme and then murdered her. Witnesses back her story and have publicly declared that she is not a cold blooded murderer.

That's almost always said about most women that have gotten the death penalty, even when there's no doubt about their guilt. It makes it that much easier to rally support for them. The textbook example of that is 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, 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. But 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 free of deeply embedded racial and class bias. Gender bias perpetuates stereotypes of female victimization and warped notions of male chivalry. It's that irony that makes many prosecutors, judges and juries more willing to put legal fairness and human compassion before the bloodlust to legally kill. That may be enough to save Carty, and that's a good thing, but it should also be enough to save others wrongly accused no matter their gender.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His nationally heard talk show is on KTYM-AM 1460 AM Los Angeles Friday 9:30 AM and KPFK Pacifica Radio 90.7 Los Angeles Saturday Noon PST.

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