Few Women Face the Executioner

In America, equality for women has always stopped short of death row.

From colonial times through the twentieth century, women have been accused of murder, convicted of murder and sentenced to death in far fewer numbers than men.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., there have been 565 confirmed executions of women from 1632 to today. During roughly the same period, 1608 to 1998, more than 19,000 men have been executed.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976, nine women have been executed, the Death Penalty Information Center reports. Of these, three were executed in Oklahoma, two in Texas and one each in Florida, North Carolina, Alabama and Arkansas.

"There have been some blips, where in certain eras more women were executed for specific crimes," says Victor L. Streib, dean of law at Ohio Northern University who has written extensively on the death penalty. "But even so, executions of women were a very small percentage of all executions."

One such blip resulted from the witch trials in colonial Massachusetts. Another, says Streib, occurred in the south during the slavery era, when a plantation owner often blamed the death of a child on the caretaker and had that person executed. "That person was usually a woman slave," Streib says.

Statistics from the Death Penalty Information Center and the Department of Justice show that women account for 1 in 10 murder arrests, 1 in 52 death sentences and nine of 784 executions.

Velma Barfield, put to death in North Carolina on Nov.2, 1984, was the first woman to be executed since 1976, when the Supreme Court cleared the way for states to impose the death penalty.

A total of 142 death sentences have been imposed upon female offenders in 23 states from January 1973 through June 2002. As of July 1, 2002, there were 52 women on death row. Sentences of the others were reversed or commuted to life imprisonment.

California has thirteen women on death row, twice as many as any other state.

North Carolina has sentenced the most women to death (16), followed closely by Florida and California with 15 each, and by Texas with 13.