Olivarius: On femme fatales

Culture Quotient

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the impending execution of Teresa Lewis, the first woman set to be executed by Virginia in almost 100 years. Despite pleas for clemency and a petition for a stay from the Supreme Court, Lewis was executed last Thursday by lethal injection.

The death penalty is not exceptional in this country, especially in Virginia. But the coverage of Lewis’s case was. Newspapers from Florida to California followed her final weeks. British newspapers and Ghanaian blogs debated the complexities of American capital punishment. Novelist John Grisham defended her in The Washington Post. Lewis even attracted the attention of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who chastised the Western media for devoting “millions of Internet pages” to Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman sentenced to stoning for adultery, but not caring about an American woman on death row.

Why did Lewis’ case garner so much attention?

She was undeniably guilty of an atrocious crime — hiring two gunmen to kill her husband and stepson for $250,000 of insurance money — and her mental competency was questionable, having scored 73 and 70 on two different IQ tests, placing her just above the level of mental retardation.

But what makes her case so different from that of Georgia prisoner Brandon Rhode, who was executed last Monday amid much less media hullabaloo?

Like Lewis, Rhode committed an atrocious crime — the murder of a man and his children. Rhode’s mental ability was also questionable. He suffered from organic brain damage and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, placing his mental competency far below normal levels. He also attempted suicide with a razor a few days before his execution.

But we cared about Teresa Lewis. Why?

Because she was a woman. Gender overshadowed our conversations , though we refused to actually talk about it.

Capital punishment is, and always has been, gender-biased. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, only 12 of the 1,228 people executed have been women. Of the 3,361 people on death row, only 61 are women. According to the Justice Department, women commit roughly one in 10 homicides, but they receive only 1.87 percent of the death sentences. So Lewis joined a very exclusive group last Thursday.

But obviously, no one is rejoicing over the fact that Lewis broke a glass ceiling.

Admittedly, women and men commit murder differently. Men are more likely to kill strangers and often do so while committing another crime, like rape or burglary — “aggravating factors” required in most states for a death sentence. Women are more likely to suffocate or poison their victims, who generally aren’t strangers. Men are also more likely to use violent methods like guns and knives for murder than women. There are many Ted Bundys and Sons of Sam; Aileen Wuornos is pretty unique.

Of the 12 women executed since 1976, eight of them were executed for the murder of their husband, partner or child. This suggests that our legal system deems the “worst” female criminals to be those that defy traditional female roles as good mothers and wives. Our press does too. The case of Andrea Yates, who drowned her five young children in the family bathtub garnered incredible media attention in 2001.

Teresa Lewis’s case fits into these patterns of gender bias. She didn’t pull trigger on relatives. She hired others to do that. The prosecution painted her as an unnatural wife for killing her husband and emphasized that she had pimped out her 16-year-old daughter to one of the shooters, making her a bad mother. So even though Teresa Lewis was far less likely to get the death penalty than a man, she was condemned to die for sexist reasons. As Richard Dieter, executive of the Death Penalty Information Center stated, “When women cross a certain line and are seen as going outside their societal role, they are considered particularly evil and dangerous.”

The way we treat women in our courtrooms calls into question our administration of justice for everyone.

Gender bias is in some ways the least problematic aspect of our justice system, which is riddled with inequalities. African-Americans make up 14 percent of the American population but represent 35 percent of the people executed since 1976. Despite laws protecting against this, 22 people have been given the death penalty for crimes they committed when they were juveniles. Since 1983, over 60 people with mental illness or retardation have been executed in the United States, and it is further estimated that about 10 percent of people on death row suffer from serious mental illness, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Focus.

Juries and judges seem to have many preconceptions — that men are violent and fit better the prototype for a Jeffery Dahmer-esque serial killer, that women are irredeemable after killing their husbands and children, that black men are especially dangerous and that some crimes are so terrible that neither mental illness nor youth can excuse them.

Teresa Lewis’ life obviously shouldn’t have been spared on the basis of her gender alone. And it wasn’t. But hopefully the discomfort America faced over her execution will force us to look at the greater problems with the death penalty system.


  • penny_lane


    Editor: It should be “femmes fatales.” The “femme” part is the NOUN part, after all, and needs to be just as plural as its modifier. You probably put this in print and sent it out to all the subscribing alumni and put giant stacks in the admissions office, didn’t you? At least on the internet it can still be fixed…

    Olivarius: Keep up the good work. I’m glad no one stayed her execution just because she’s a woman, but your points about why we react so viscerally to cases like this (mother murdering husband and pimping out daughter) are really good. It’s important to say these kinds of things out loud and in print, because the more we make people think about their implicit or explicit assumptions about the roles of women, the more we’ll see people questioning the status quo.

  • FailBoat

    > Gender bias is in some ways the least problematic aspect of our justice system, which is riddled with inequalities. African-Americans make up 14 percent of the American population but represent 35 percent of the people executed since 1976.

    *sigh*. Why must the problem be with the justice system?

    Perhaps the problem is with a racist society that drives black males to make up a disproportionate percentage of incarcerations in America as well. Perhaps the problem is with a classist society, since these supposedly race-based inequalities are due to the confounding factor of urban poverty. Perhaps the problem is the legacy of crack in the ‘hood. Perhaps the problem is with welfare-dependency cycles. Perhaps the problem is that single-motherhood increases the likelihood of a cycle of poverty arising. Perhaps the problem is with media role-models for black males. Perhaps the problem is that people of other races and heritages aren’t commiting *enough* crimes get themselves on par with black criminals. Perhaps it’s gang violence. Perhaps we should blame the Nation of Islam. Perhaps we should blame Southern Baptist preachers. Perhaps we should blame the legacy of slavery. Perhaps we can blame Batman.

    Look – 5 minutes and I thought up at least 7 serious (and several unserious) suggestions for why black males get executed at a higher rate that have nothing to do with racist juries.

  • y13

    olivarius, this is great as usual. but please. use the word UNIQUE correctly. it means one of a kind. nobody can be “pretty one of a kind.”

  • chaseom2

    The author of this column must be commended. Her ability to solder monotheism to the pro-choice argument is a feat of staggering skill. Hers is a poetry none can match. Again, it is urgent that the author of this column be commended.

  • penny_lane


    They’ve done studies where they asked independent coders to rate the severity of crimes committed (while knowing nothing about the offender or his race). They then re-matched the crimes with the offenders and compared sentences for the most severe crimes: black offenders were five times more likely to receive the death penalty than white offenders whose crimes were rated equally severe. None of your serious (nor your silly) suggestions quite accounts for this discrepancy.

  • Goldie08

    I am equally horrified when a husband kills his wife and children as when a wife kills her husband and children. Both are tragedies, and crimes that warrent the death penalty. Premeditated familial murder is one of the most disturbing crimes I can think of – whether it is a father who defies a traditional patriarchal role, or Theresa Lewis who “def[ied] traditional female roles.”

    The grey area surrounding her mental capacity is a different issue from her gender. Yes, it is a shame that 1 point plus or minus determines whether or not a person can be deemed responsible for his or her crimes, but that is the law under which equal rights are applied. Everyone is subject to the 70 point threshold.

  • FailBoat

    Penny Lane,

    Blacks disproportionately kill black victims. Maybe the race of the victim – not the race of the suspect – is at work here. Maybe blacks disproportionately live in jurisdictions likely to hand out the death penalty. Maybe blacks disproportionately live in high-crime (poor urban) areas, and thus face communities and juries more fed-up with crime and more likely to give death penalties.

    The same studies that show that blacks are more likely to get the death penalty also show that this phenomenon exists even with juries that are overwhelmingly black. Maybe it’s not a race thing at all. Expand your mind.

    I’d also like a citation for your study, because I’d wager that I can find at least five variables that the researchers didn’t account for within ten minutes of reading the study.

  • penny_lane


    Black people are just as capable of being prejudiced against blacks as people of any other race are. Implicit prejudice as a result of social/cultural influence is possible no matter your race. It’s a well-known phenomenon. The racial makeup of the juries does nothing to prove whether they are or are not implicitly racist.

    I’d give you a citation if I had one, but I have long forgotten the authors of that study. Apologies.