With Little Fanfare, US Prepared to Execute First Woman in Three Years

Kimberly McCarthy’s impending execution suggests that women are not anomalies in American capital punishment, and new research shows they’re not anomalies in committing violent crime either.

In Lancaster, Texas, just south of Dallas, Kimberly McCarthy called on her 71-year-old retired neighbor and asked if she could borrow a cup of sugar. Once inside the retiree’s house, McCarthy stabbed the old woman with a butcher knife, beat her with a large candleholder and cut off the ring finger that held her diamond wedding ring.

The last time a woman was executed in Texas, it was 1998. The case of 39-year-old Karla Faye Tucker – who had killed two people with a pickaxe – generated an explosive media kerfuffle. Urgent pleas were addressed to then-Governor George W. Bush to spare Tucker’s life on the grounds that she was a woman and a born again Christian. There were several made-for-television movies, a feature length film, and even an Indigo Girls song.

In response, former ACLU president and St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) columnist Robyn Blumner wrote in a January 1998 editorial, “This nation has not overcome its faux Victorian notions that women…lack the physical or mental capabilities to do harm themselves…It is not new that women kill; what is new is the legitimate push for gender equality, which forces society to acknowledge and internalize that fact…Society has to accept women as combatants and even women as brutalizers, but dismantling the stereotype that suggests otherwise is the only way true equality will be achieved.”

McCarthy’s impending death, which has garnered national media attention as a rare female capital execution has raised no significant gender-based objections from Texans or the national media. Despite moral objections to the death penalty, might this lack of “spare the woman” objections be viewed, with heavy consciences, as a form of progress? Or does this lack of media shock over the violent punishment of a violent woman simply reflect the changing reality of the relationship of women to violent crime?

According to a new report released in February 2013 by The Sentencing Project, using Bureau of Justice Statistics information from the years 2000-2009, the rate of women sentenced to incarceration for committing violent crimes grew 40%, compared with 22% among men during this same ten-year period. Despite a general slowing in the growth of America’s prison population in those years, the incarceration rates for women continued to increase at a rate “far outpacing” that of men, as they have for several decades, with the total women’s prison population rising 646% from 1980 to 2010, compared with 419% for men.

During 2000-2009, the rate of incarceration in state and federal prisons increased by 48.4% for white women, making them (not black women, whose rate declined sharply), the fastest growing prison population. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are currently 34,100 women in prisons nationwide for committing violent crimes.

As recent objections to lifting the ban on women in combat have shown however, the enduring assumption that women are simply less able to kill has not yet been dismantled. It bubbled just underneath the assertions that women do not have the upper body strength required to carry a wounded comrade out of a bullet-whizzing fray or the “reflexes” to shoot aggressors, and it gurgled even underneath the need to insist that women combatants are “just as tough as men” as Dexter Filkins wrote in a January 2013 article for The New Yorker.

Time’s Erika Christakis wrote in July 2012 that violent crime is overwhelmingly male, comparing it to a deadly disease that disproportionately affects men. Steven Pinker, a prominent psychologist and the author of the 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, wrote “Though the exact ratios vary, in every society, it is the males more than the females who play-fight, bully, fight for real, kill for real, rape, start wars and fight in wars.”

And yet, we are a society obsessed with violence and women. Women who kill and shoot and beat are the stuff of endless television shows, movies, and books. As a society, we try and fail and try again to make sense of the fact that women kill in a culture that still holds dear the assumption that men have a monopoly on violence.

When men commit violent crimes, these crimes are explained by a wide and complex range of factors: self-defense, fear, desperation, lack of access to resources, drug abuse, hate bias. Male violence is the stuff of excellent, nuanced television shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos.

When women commit violent crimes, it is our cultural tendency to narrow down the range of possible factors to a paltry few: she killed because her husband was abusing her; she killed because she was experiencing post partum depression; she killed because she was simply born bad. Female violence is the sometimes-stuff of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and the bread and butter of the Investigation Discovery television show Deadly Women, in which real violent crimes by women are re-enacted True Crime style and viewers are asked to vote for who is “the deadliest of them all” – will you pick “Holly the Grandparent Killer” or “Lynn the Husband Torturer?”

Of the women currently on death row in America, more than half (including McCarthy) were convicted of murdering people who were not their husbands, children, boyfriends or girlfriends. They killed because of the wide range of factors that motivate any person to kill. They killed because, like men, they simply did.

Many claim that men are just more capable of committing the kinds of violent crimes with aggravating factors that bring down death sentences. And yet, including McCarthy, 63 women currently remain on death row, and 572 women have already been executed by the United States since the dawn of capital punishment. Women, while the minority, are not anomalies in the American story of capital punishment, just as, while the minority, women are not anomalies in the American story of armed combat.

It is not inaccurate for Steven Pinker to write that more men than women fight in wars. But as we have seen in recent months, women have been part of the story of our national military since its inception, and characterizing women soldiers as the exceptions, the tag-alongs, and the second class will no longer cut it.

Similarly, it’s not inaccurate for Time’s Christakis to say that violent crime is a disease that disproportionately affects men. But according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, in 2011 nationwide, 19.6% of those arrested for violent crime in 2011 were women. Additionally, in 2011, 1,138 murders were committed by women, 9,485 were committed by men, and 3,925 murders were committed by a perpetrator of unknown gender. The simple fact of these numbers does not offer substantive proof that murder belongs more to men than it does to women, but it does offer real support to the claim that women possess the “physical and mental capabilities” to take another human life. Treating women who kill as pathological exceptions, as statistically non-relevant, will no longer cut it either.

Women should be equally subject to the laws of death by capital punishment if they are ever to achieve equality in life. As America prepares to make major changes to the way it conceives of the bodies that make up our armed forces who kill and die overseas, so must we continue to push ourselves towards changing the way we conceive of the bodies who kill and die in our own country.