Friday, July 6, 2007

Cairns reviews Streib, The Fairer Death: Executing Women in Ohio

Victor L. Streib, The Fairer Death: Executing Women in Ohio (University of Ohio Press, 2006) is reviewed for H-Law by Kathleen A. Cairns, Department of History, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Cairns writes:
Trying to figure out why some killers are condemned and executed, while others committing similar crimes manage to evade the ultimate penalty, is akin to attempting to thread a needle with a blade of grass. That is to say, it's well nigh impossible. Comparing condemned women to their more fortunate "sisters"appears, on its face, to be a somewhat easier task. Women are, after all, executed in far fewer numbers than men. A total of 568 women have been hanged, gassed, electrocuted, and injected since 1632, representing less than 3 percent of all the executions in America. Since 1900, the percentage has dropped even further, to less than 1 percent of all executed inmates.

Narrowing the study to a single state would seem to bring the topic into microscopic focus. Nineteen states have executed women....Even the most "death-friendly" state for women--New York--has only executed seven women in its entire history; eight if you count Ethel Rosenberg, electrocuted at Sing Sing by the federal government for espionage in June 1953.

How hard can it be to compare such a small sampling of women? Difficult, as Victor Streib discovered after closely examining the cases of four women executed in Ohio and eleven other women who were condemned but not executed. Nine of the eleven had their death sentences overturned and two currently reside on Death Row.

In his new book, The Fairer Death: Executing Women in Ohio, Streib struggles mightily to come up with common denominators that link all of the cases. He concludes that race plays a significant role. Other than ethnicity, the circumstances of the crimes, time periods, and personalities of the defendants are too diverse to allow for firm conclusions. Nonetheless, Streib's work is a valuable addition to the rich body of work on the death penalty in America.

Streib is a law professor at Ohio Northern University, as well as a prolific author and an attorney who has represented female death row inmates, though regretfully he does not reveal which ones. Despite his background, The Fairer Death is not a work of advocacy, he states, but an effort, "based on academic research," to "explore an interesting topic" (p. xi). Recognizing that the lopsided percentage of men on death rows across the United States reveals inherent inequities in the legal system, Streib set out to examine the underpinnings of this discrepancy, what it demonstrates about society's ideas on gender and how these expectations play out in criminal cases involving women and capital punishment....

Death penalty statutes themselves are not to blame for the vast over-representation of condemned men, Streib asserts, because they contain no overt gender bias. But deeply ingrained gender ideology does play a significant role in how the laws are applied....

In this observation, Streib reinforces work done by other scholars, such as Ann Jones in Women Who Kill (1996) and Vicki Jensen in Why Women Kill: Homicide and Gender Ideology (2001), who argue that men and women in general possess different motivations for murder.


For the rest, click here.

Cairns is the author of a related book: The Enigma Woman: The Death Sentence of Nellie May Madison (Univ. of Nebraska Press) on the first woman on death row in California.

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