February 8, 1998

Dead Women Waiting: Who's Who on Death Row

  • America's Death Row Gallery

    HOUSTON -- Eleven are on death row for killing or arranging to kill their husbands, five for murdering their children, and two for doing both. One killed two of her grandchildren.

    All together, 43 women, including one who used to be a man, are awaiting execution in the United States, a small fraction of the 3,365 people currently under a death sentence.

    Women are much more likely to end up on death row for family-related murders. That does not mean that the female method of murder has been any less hideous than the male.

    Darlie Lynn Routier awaits execution in Texas for killing her 5-year-old son.

    Credit: Associated Press

    Among the ways condemned women have killed in this country are shooting with an AK-47, slicing with a box cutter, injecting with battery acid and beating with a baseball bat. One drowned her paralyzed son by pushing him off a canoe on a family outing, leaving him and his 50 pounds of metal leg braces to sink to the bottom.

    But women have not, typically, made headlines by actually getting put to death: from 1962, when Elizabeth Ann Duncan was executed in California for hiring two drifters to kill her son's pregnant wife, until last week, just one woman, Margie Velma Barfield, had been executed. She was put to death in 1984 in North Carolina, for lacing her fiance's beer and food with rat poison.

    Last week, though, Karla Faye Tucker, a 38-year-old pert-looking pickax slayer and born-again Christian, was executed in Huntsville, Texas, in a case that drew an extraordinary amount of worldwide attention. It also drew fervent pleas for mercy from an eclectic coalition of her advocates that included Bianca Jagger, Pope John Paul II, televangelist Pat Robertson, one of the jurors in her case and the brother of one of her two victims.

    Texas ignored those pleas and put Ms. Tucker to death. With the particular debate over whether she should die thus rendered moot, and with two more women scheduled to be executed in the next two and a half months, a new debate began. Had the country passed some psychological threshold that augured an increase in executions of women?

    Many prosecutors sounded like feminists in arguing that the Tucker execution signaled that women indeed had achieved equal rights in capital litigation, and were being held just as accountable for their actions as men are. Not like in, say, Russia, which has a death penalty but specifically exempts women. And many death-penalty supporters also said they hoped the Tucker case reflected stiffening public resolve to pick up the pace of executions in this country, where only a small percentage of people sentenced to death receive the punishment.

    Opponents of capital punishment, meanwhile, insisted that Ms. Tucker's execution was a hugely important moment in their cause. These advocates argued that Ms. Tucker's numerous television appearances in the last days of her life made many people feel they had gotten to know her. This, they said, had been a powerful reminder that execution means the death of a human being who may be capable of redemption, not a homicidal animal who is beyond hope.

    "Her death will not be in vain for the abolitionist movement," said Ajamu Baraka, regional director of Amnesty International. Still, he and other leaders of that movement said they were troubled that the execution of a white woman had drawn so much notice while many black men go to their deaths professing as strong a devotion to their savior as she did.

    Other death-penalty experts cautioned against reading any sort of national trend into the Tucker execution and added that the scheduled executions of two women in the coming months -- 54-year-old Judi Buenoano in Florida and Erica Sheppard, 24, in Texas -- could well be stayed through legal maneuvers.

    "People are saying, 'Oh, there's a whole movement now, let's go ahead and execute women,' but I don't think it's necessarily that," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. "This train was coming down the track 10 years ago."

    There is, of course, an argument over whether women, who commit roughly 1 in every 10 homicides, have been disproportionately shielded from executions. Victor L. Streib, dean of Ohio Northern University's College of Law, who compiles the figures on convictions and executions of women in a semiannual publication, "Capital Punishment of Female Offenders," says the answer is obviously yes. "There is a gender bias in the process," he said, in which women are "screened out at all levels of the system."

    But other experts argue that women commit a tiny fraction of the kinds of murders that qualify for capital punishment.

    Ms. Tucker acknowledged that her gender brought attention to her case, but in her plea for clemency, she asked that it not be considered. "When we are talking about the crime I committed, gender has no place as an issue," she wrote to the Board of Pardons and Paroles.

    And speaking to a reporter in late December, Ms. Tucker said of the death penalty, which she opposed: "If you believe in it for one, you believe in it for everybody. If you don't believe in it, don't believe in it for anybody."

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