New ACLU Report Documents Harsh Conditions Faced by Women Living on Death Row

November 29, 2004 12:00 am

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First-Ever National Survey of Women on Death Row Comes Two Days Before Execution of Texas Woman

WASHINGTON – A new report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union — the first-ever national survey of women currently on Death Row — found that women who have been sentenced to death are often subjected to harsh living conditions, including being forced to live in virtual isolation, and many are sentenced for crimes that don’t result in a death sentence for men.

“For the first time, we have a snapshot of the experience of women on Death Row – and the picture is grim,” said Rachel King, a staff attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project and one of the authors of the report. “Women who have been condemned to death are put into isolation and forced to endure abusive and degrading conditions that simply have no place in our criminal justice system.”

The report, The Forgotten Population: A Look at Death Row in the United States Through the Experiences of Women, details the experiences of 56 women living on death row, and also reviews the case files of 10 women who have been executed since 1976. The report found that women on Death Row face similar problems as men, such as inadequate defense counsel and struggles with drug and alcohol addictions, but that women are subjected to harsher living conditions because of their small numbers.

Today’s report comes as Texas prepares to execute Frances Newton this Wednesday, despite serious doubts about the evidence in her case. The state’s case against Newton, who has maintained her innocence from the beginning, was based almost entirely on ballistics evidence processed at Houston’s now-discredited crime lab, which has been under widespread investigation since August when police found 280 boxes of mislabeled and improperly stored evidence from 8,000 cases dating back more than a decade. Newton’s court-appointed attorney also failed to interview any witnesses in preparation for the trial.

“In light of the recent Houston crime lab scandal, we call on Texas to halt the execution of Frances Newton in order to allow further investigation of new evidence supporting her innocence,” said Will Harrell, Executive Director of the ACLU of Texas.

Newton’s story, along with the personal stories of seven other women on Death Row (including some who were executed), is detailed in an appendix to the report.

The report makes 13 recommendations to improve conditions for women on Death Row as well as ensure that women receive fair and adequate defense counsel when charged with capital offenses. The recommendations include: establishing training programs for defense lawyers to investigate abuse and raise the issue at trial; integrating women on Death Row into regular prison units and providing them with opportunities to work; adopting prison staffing policies to prevent abuse; and amending the Prison Litigation Reform Act to provide women who are sexually abused in prison with access to the court.

Among the key findings of the report:

  • Women on Death Row often had ineffective legal counsel and were victims of misconduct by prosecutors or law enforcement.
  • More than half of the women have suffered regular, ongoing physical abuse by family members or spouses.
  • Half of the women on Death Row acted with at least one other person, but in most of those cases, the co-defendant received a sentence other than death-even in cases where they appeared to be equally culpable.
  • Many women on Death Row live in almost complete isolation, which puts them at a serious risk of developing mental illness, or exacerbating existing mental illness.
  • A third of the women surveyed said that corrections officers watch them when they use the toilet, shower or change clothes.

Since 1973, 148 women have been sentenced to death in the United States. There are currently 50 women on Death Row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

In addition to the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, the report was produced by the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, the ACLU National Prison Project, the National Criminal Justice Program of the American Friends Service Committee and the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women.

To read an executive summary of the report, go to: /node/21954

The report is available online at: /node/25085

A sample survey questionnaire is online at: /node/22113

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