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Women on Death Row

Anna Arceneaux,
Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Capital Punishment Project
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March 30, 2011

Perhaps because men make up the overwhelming portion of the death row population in the United States, we often don’t think of the 61 women sentenced to death, or the 12 women who have been executed in the modern death penalty era which commenced in 1976.

Teresa Lewis, whom Virginia executed in September of last year, was the last woman executed in the United States. Lewis had been convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of her husband and stepson, allegedly to collect insurance money. Prosecutors claimed that Lewis was the mastermind of the murders, which were committed by two men, Matthew Shallenberger and Rodney Fuller. But Lewis, with an IQ in the mentally retarded range, was no mastermind. Shallenberger, Lewis’s lover, took advantage of her gender and her mental limitations in convincing her to go along with his plot.

Lewis’s trial attorneys urged her to plead guilty to avoid a death sentence. They assured her that a death sentence was unlikely: she had no criminal record, she had cooperated with law enforcement, and Shallenberger had received a life sentence before the same judge. Plus, they assured her, no woman had received a death sentence in Virginia since 1912.

Their advice proved fatal when the judge sentenced Lewis to death. Like Shallenberger, Fuller received a life sentence.

In a letter to another woman, Shallenberger later said of Lewis: “just what I was looking for: some ugly bitch who married her husband for the money and I knew I could get to fall head over heals [sic] for me.” He also told an investigator: “From the moment I met her I knew she was someone who could be easily manipulated. From the moment I met her I had a plan for how I could use her to get some money.”

As Lewis’ execution date approached last year, the ACLU, along with a broad national and international coalition of supporters, implored Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to grant clemency to Lewis. The calls fell on deaf ears, and Lewis was executed — the first woman Virginia had executed in 100 years and the only woman on its death row.

Lewis’s execution highlights many of the broader problems with the death penalty system in the United States for men and for women: the vulnerability of the mentally ill, the disproportionate application of punishments among codefendants, and inadequate defense counsel.

But her case also raises concerns unique to women. Several years ago, the ACLU touched upon many of these concerns in its report, The Forgotten Population. Evidence collected by the ACLU illustrated that many women on death row were in abusive relationships at the time of their crimes, and that abuse often played a role in the crime: Many women on death row acted in self-defense or defense of another. Many women, like Lewis, were in manipulative/abusive relationships that led them into criminal activity. These findings remain just as true today as they were then.

The report also showed that women who do not conform to stereotypical ideas of femininity are often at greater risk for a death sentence, as in the case of Wanda Jean Allen in Oklahoma. Allen was a lesbian charged with murder for the death of her lover in the heat of passion — not the kind of case in which a prosecutor would normally seek death. At trial, the prosecutor alleged that Allen had been the dominant “man” in the relationship and fought to keep out evidence of the victim’s own violent behavior and aggression towards Allen. Allen’s sexual orientation was completely irrelevant to her guilt or whether she should receive a death sentence; still, the prosecution used it as an aggravating factor against her.

The report also described the horrifying conditions of confinement on death row for women, which are often even more isolating than for men because of their smaller numbers. An Ohio newspaper reported in 2003 that Donna Marie Roberts, the single woman on the state’s death row, was housed in a segregation cell formerly reserved to punish inmates who commit disciplinary infractions, which was smaller than those on men’s death row. Unlike the men, Roberts did not have a window or a working TV. She had to bang on the door to get the guard’s attention to bring her food, dispose of trash, or receive medication. As the only woman, she would take her one hour of recreation, five days a week in the prison yard all by herself.

Death sentences and executions of women across the country highlight some of the fundamental flaws of our death penalty system. Fortunately, execution of women is still rare, but even the execution of one woman (or man) is too many.

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