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Gender Bias And The Death Penalty - Debra Milke Out On Bond

Regardless of where you stand on capital punishment, many states in America still have the death penalty.  The most staggering of statistics is where female offenders are concerned.  While many people stand firmly for or against the death penalty, the lines seem to blur when it comes to sentencing a woman to death.  Men overwhelmingly make up the majority of those on death row today.  It stands to reason that statistics show that violent crimes including rape and murder are more often committed by men.  However, there are women who commit horrendous crimes - the difference in viewing their crimes and the reasons behind the crimes is where the gender inequality seems to begin.

Women have fought for equal rights in this country for decades, however when it comes to murder all things do not seem equal. In the United States, only 13 women have been executed in the last 40 years.  Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center said "there is less enforcement of the death penalty at almost every stage for females".  A recent Wall Street Journal analysis found that between 2000-2010, less than 10% of all murders in the United States were committed by women, yet women make up around 1.87% of the death row population. Fewer women are executed than their male counterparts.

A recent Business Insider report claims that 40 women have received the death penalty in America, only 13 since 1976 - according to the Death Penalty Information Center. 1,343 have faced execution since then. The most common murder committed by females seems to be the killing of an intimate partner. Since the ratio of murders committed by women is so much lower than those committed by men, there may be a tendency for jurors to believe a woman who kills her husband or intimate partner must have done so for a reason. With the increased awareness of domestic violence in America, the battered woman defense has become commonplace in the courtroom. If jurors believe a woman killed her partner because of abuse, they may believe the incident is isolated and they would not likely re-offend - thus, some women are shown leniency and are not sentenced to death.

Looking at all female murderers in the same light would be a very dangerous position to take. Women are just as capable of violent and horrendous crimes as men are, given it occurs at a much lower frequency than with men.  That doesn't mean these women aren't dangerous. In 1984, Velma Barfield became the first woman to be executed in 22 years in North Carolina. An admitted drug addict, Barfield was sentenced to death for poisoning her husband so he wouldn't find out she had forged a check for $300.00.  One could look at Barfield's drug addiction and factor that into the murder, in this case that would be a mistake. Barfield later admitted to killing 3 other people, including her own mother. 

Women who kill their partners, husbands or ex husbands seems to be the most common of all female involved murders. Some female killers actually garner sympathy from the public after their stories of philandering husbands becomes known. Think Betty Broderick.  I certainly understand that Broderick may have felt helpless and humiliated after husband Dan left her and married a younger woman. Broderick entered the house of her ex husband and his new wife and shot them both as they slept in their bed, yet she found sympathy and support during her trial. She was convicted on two counts of second degree murder and sentenced to 32 years to life.  How did Broderick escape a first degree murder conviction? She may have felt slighted by her ex husbands advantage in their nasty divorce proceedings because he was a well known attorney, but there was evidence that she stalked him, left threatening messages on the couples' answering machine and generally harassed him before entering their house using her children's key and shot two defenseless people as they slept in their own bed. Murder is not a remedy for an unfair divorce settlement.  Broderick remains in prison, having been denied parole in 2011. Broderick is another woman who sought to use the media to gain advantage in the public eye and shame her deceased ex husband.  She's still angry, and I really don't think to this day she believes she did anything fundamentally wrong.  

Susan Smith is another woman who many believe deserved the death penalty for the drowning deaths of her two small sons, Michael and Alex. The Smith case is well known because the nature of the crime shocked the nation and she originally blamed the crime on a black man. After lying to police and the public about this black man who stole her car with the children inside, Smith played it up to the media, pleading for the return of her children.  When it came to light that Smith killed her children because her current love interest did not want children, people were enraged. Smith drove her car to the edge of a South Carolina lake, got out and watched the car go into the water with her two boys strapped in their car seats. At trial, Smith dodged a death sentence and instead received a 30 year sentence. 


Female murderers sometimes escape the death penalty by plea deals.  That brings me to the most recent and perhaps the most widely followed capital murder trial in recent years, Arizona v. Jodi Arias. Arias hoped to avoid a trial altogether, she claims. It has been reported that early on, Arias wanted to plead guilty to second degree murder in exchange for a short prison sentence. State prosecutors said "no thanks".  The murder of 30 year old Travis Alexander was one of the most brutal killings to occur in Maricopa County. It shocked an entire community, the state and then the country and perhaps the world. It was a murder that certainly warrants the consideration of the death penalty in that it was extremely cruel, heinous and depraved.  When a person is stabbed more than 2 dozen times, shot in the head and has his throat slashed - it's extremely rageful and personal. No doubt about it, she wanted him dead. She watched him struggle for life. Evidence presented at trial shows that she followed him from the bathroom where the attack began to the bedroom, where he tried in vain to escape her wrath.

She had many chances to stop what she was doing and call for help. Prosecutors believe the killing took less than 3 minutes from start to finish, but there was time from the first swing of that knife for her to stop. She would've been in big legal trouble for assault, but he would have stood a chance of living. She could not or did not want to stop herself.  The jury in this case correctly convicted her of first degree murder, but could not agree on the sentencing.  Would they have had such a difficult time if the roles were reversed, and Travis had done this to Jodi?  I'm not so sure this trial would still be ongoing if this were the case.

The fact that Arias lied about the crucial facts in this case didn't sway the jury enough to give her a death sentence.  I'm not sure what else the prosecutor could have done to convince the jury this murder warrants the death penalty - and I truly believe this is a case of gender bias.  That jury knew the death was horrific, they saw those graphic photos. The jury seemed to reject Arias' claims of physical abuse. Juror questions seemed to question her account of the relationship and her lack of memory of the actual killing. They had to know she lied on the stand, and in a big way. She called him a pedophile. She made him out to be a womanizer. She painted herself as the real victim as she sort of took responsibility.

I believe Arias presented herself as an unlikely killer to the jury, somebody who never would have done something like this, if not for a reason. Whether or not she would kill again is not something a jury should consider. She's on trial for THIS murder, not future conduct. The jury was to weigh the mitigation put on by Arias versus the aggravating factors. The jury got this one wrong. The law is the law, like it or not. The circumstances surrounding this case are fairly clear. How does such a clear cut case of homicide get so muddied? Does Arias stand a chance of receiving the death penalty given the statistics and the surprising outcome of the first trial?  Men have been sentenced to death for far less horrific murders. This bothers me a great deal and based on the last two status conferences regarding the sentencing re trial, I think this case is going to be around for some time.

I want to make one thing clear here, I don't "have it in" for Jodi Arias.  I don't claim to know what makes her tick or why she chose to do what she did. I just feel that the punishment should fit the crime.  But in the states that have the death penalty, it should be equally enforced. If that jury had any doubts going into deliberations for sentencing, the lies that Arias told before, during and after the trial should have come into consideration. If you consider how the victim died and how scared and shocked he must have been and all the chances she had to save him, I don't see how the mitigation she presented outweighs the aggravating factors in this case. It seems overwhelming, yet she escaped a death sentence and seems to be thriving in her jail environment. Some believe the state's best chance at a death sentence was with the first jury, the jury that heard the entire case. I'm not so sure about that.  Perhaps a new jury will look at the facts of the case, and not let emotion play a part in their decision making process.

Women for the most part are the fairer sex.  But some women are evil, violent and calculating. I don't know if there will ever be true gender equality when it comes to the death penalty.

**Debra Milke has been freed on $250,000 bail in Maricopa County. Milke has been imprisoned since 1990 for the murder of her 4 year old son. Milke was on death row until recently. Her conviction was overturned after a federal appeals court found that prosecutors in her trial should have disclosed important information about the truthfulness of the now retired detective who testified at trial that Milke confessed to him. Milke has maintained her innocence from the start. Maricopa County prosecutors intend to re try Milke for murder. Her trial date is tentatively set for September 30th. I hope this trial is televised. Many supporters of Milke are convinced the detective who allegedly took Milke's confession is a liar and a criminal himself. The interview where Milke reportedly confessed was not audio or videotaped. It's the word of one detective with a questionable character against a mother who had no motive to kill her son. I'll be watching for this one.




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