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> Columns > Boston Globe > Execution equality

Execution equality

By Cathy Young | October 7, 2002

BARRING ANY last-minute developments, Aileen Wuornos, sometimes described as America's first female serial killer, will be put to death by the state of Florida on Oct. 9. Last Wednesday, Florida Governor Jeb Bush lifted the stay of execution after a panel of psychiatrists ruled that 46-year-old Wuornos, who voluntarily dropped her appeals, is mentally competent. She will become the first woman executed in Florida since 1848.

So far, Wuornos's scheduled execution has not generated the sort of media circus that preceded the 1998 execution of sweet-faced ax murderer Karla Faye Tucker in Texas. Still, her death is likely to get a higher-than-usual amount of publicity, and not only because her case has been notorious enough to be chronicled in a TV movie, a documentary, a play, and even an opera.

Wuornos's gender alone makes her case a rarity. Seven women have been executed in this country since 1976, when capital punishment was reinstated by the Supreme Court - along with nearly 800 men.

Women commit about 10 percent of all murders in the United States, yet receive only about 2 percent of the death sentences and account for about 1 percent of death-row inmates, since their sentences are more often commuted or reversed. Yet the debate about the unfair application of the death penalty in America has focused almost exclusively on disparities of race and class, while virtually ignoring gender.

True, male killers are more likely to have committed ''death-eligible'' crimes, from cop-killing to murder during the commission of another felony such as robbery or rape. Women who kill are more likely to kill family members - which, rightly or not, tends to be treated as a lesser crime. Still, while women commit nearly 30 percent of spousal murders (excluding homicides ruled to be in self-defense), they account for 15 percent of prisoners sentenced to death for killing a spouse.

Many experts believe that chivalry plays a major role: Even people who support the death penalty in general may cringe at the thought of a woman in the death chamber. In some countries such as Russia, the law explicitly exempts women from capital punishment. In America, there is an informal tendency to see more mitigating circumstances for women's crimes, and to see female criminals as sick or victimized.

''This is not a case about evil. It is about despair and sadness,'' the attorney for child killer Susan Smith argued at her trial. Tucker's supporters mostly claimed to be motivated by her religious conversion, not gender, but chivalrous sentiment was clearly involved as well. ''This is ... very unseemly,'' TV talk show host Geraldo Rivera declared. ''Texas, manhood, macho swagger ... What are ya, going to kill a lady?''

One would expect feminists to oppose such sugar-and-spice paternalism. Yet they have remained largely silent on the issue. For one, many feminists today are more interested in benefits for women than in equal treatment, and thus disinclined to complain about pro-female favoritism. Another factor is a tendency to see everything through the prism of female oppression and male beastliness.

Indeed, far from denouncing double standards, some feminists have contributed to the excuse-making. Witness the case of Wuornos, who fatally shot and robbed seven men she picked up as a prostitute - and became, to some, a symbol of abused womanhood.

Even her champions generally didn't buy her assertion that all seven slayings were in self-defense; rather, they contended that her first victim had tried to kill her and her trauma turned to an inner rage that later made her lash out against any perceived threat.

The documentary, the play, and the opera treat Wuornos as a tragic innocent. Meanwhile, the men who brought her to justice are seen as patriarchal pigs: In the play, unsubtly titled ''Self-Defense,'' a cop who wants to arrest the character based on Wuornos exclaims, ''White, middle-aged men are at risk!''

Interestingly, Wuornos now says that her claims of self-defense were a lie and that she killed out of hate and greed. But that's unlikely to change any minds. Carla Lucero, author of the opera ''Wuornos,'' has said that Wuornos's desire to be executed is merely a powerless woman's attempt to control her destiny. So when a woman takes full responsibility for her actions, she is not to be believed.

As Patricia Pearson argued in her 1997 book ''When She Was Bad,'' excusing women's violence ultimately strips them of moral agency and accountability. Indeed, whether motivated by chivalry or feminism, such excuses make women not only less than fully equal, but less than full adults.

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