Executive Summary of The Forgotten Population: A Look at Death Row in the United States Through the Experiences of Women

November 29, 2004

Executive Summary

Since 1973, 148 women have been sentenced to death in the United States. As of December 2004, there are 50 women on Death Row. These women vary in age from 22 to 73 years old and have been on Death Row for periods ranging from a few months to nearly 20 years. While much attention has been paid to women who have already been executed, such as Aileen Wournos and Karla Faye Tucker, little is known about the experiences of women who are living on Death Row.

The Forgotten Population reviews the cases of 66 women, including the 56 women who were living on Death Row at some time between April 2002 and December 2003 and the ten women who were executed between 1984 and 2002. This report marks the first time anyone has surveyed women about their experiences on Death Row. The Forgotten Population was produced by three programs of the American Civil Liberties Union -- the Capital Punishment Project, Women's Rights Project and National Prison Project -- with the National Criminal Justice Program of the American Friends Service Committee and the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women.

The report finds that women's experiences on Death Row mirror many of the problems that have been documented in the cases of men condemned to death, such as inadequate defense counsel, official misconduct, poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, mental retardation and mental illness. However, in addition to these problems, numerous women on death row have also suffered abuse and domestic violence. Moreover, once incarcerated, women face unique challenges living on Death Row, including mistreatment and lack of access to necessary services that are generally available to their male counterparts. A particularly disturbing finding of the report is the degree to which many of these women live in virtual isolation, which often leads to psychosis or exacerbates existing mental illnesses.

The Forgotten Population makes 13 recommendations to improve conditions for women living on Death Row and to ensure that women receive fair and adequate defense counsel when charged with capital offenses. The recommendations include: 

  • establishing programs to train defense counsel to litigate issues of abuse;
  • providing adequate support and assistance to abused women;
  • integrating women on Death Row into regular prison units;
  • providing women on Death Row with opportunities to work;
  • adopting prison staffing policies to prevent abuse;
  • amending the Prison Litigation Reform Act to provide women who are sexually abused while in prison with access to the courts.

Following are some of the highlights from the report:

  • Women on death row are likely to have received ineffective defense counsel or have been subjected to official misconduct by prosecutors during their trials. Because of such unfair and inadequate defense, two death-sentenced women have been found innocent and exonerated. A third woman, Frances Newton, awaits execution in Texas. Her trial attorney did not interview any witnesses in preparation for trial. The majority of the evidence against her was forensic evidence processed at the thoroughly discredited Houston crime lab. She has always maintained her innocence.
  • Nearly two-thirds of the women had experienced regular, ongoing abuse as children and as adults. In many cases, there was independent evidence available to verify these claims, but some defense attorneys failed to present this information during trial and juries were unable to take this into consideration before sentencing the women to death.
  • Of the cases reviewed, 33 women acted with at least one other person. In 22 of those, the co-defendant received a sentence other than death - even in cases in which they appeared to be equally culpable.
  • Nearly two-thirds of the women on Death Row were convicted of killing family members or people they knew. No one has calculated how many of the men on Death Row are there for killing family members, but from what we know of the general prison population, women who are in prison are more likely than men to have killed family members or intimates.
  • In nearly one-third of the 66 cases reviewed, women on Death Row were accused of committing homicide by their intimate partner, usually a man (16 were accused by a man, one was accused by a woman), whose self-interest was served by blaming the woman for the crime. Eleven of the women were sentenced to death for a homicide that they claimed to have committed under threat of coercion by a male perpetrator in order to protect themselves or their children.
  • In addition to enduring the harsh conditions of prison life, most women on Death Row live in almost complete isolation, rarely leaving their cells, and most of their infrequent human contact involves sometimes-hostile guards.
  • One in five women in our survey reported that they had been assaulted or sexually harassed while in prison. A third of the respondents said that corrections officers observed them when they used the toilet, showered, or dressed.
  • Although nearly all of the women who responded to our survey reported that they had been addicted to drugs or alcohol at the time of their arrest, two-thirds said that no drug or alcohol treatment was available at their prison. In addition, although more than half reported that they had been victims of physical or sexual abuse, fewer than half of the facilities offered any counseling for sexual, physical, or emotional abuse.
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