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AGE, CLASS, AND SEX DISPARITIES IN CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

Etta F. Morgan

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Capital punishment has always been the ultimate punishment in some societies. Methods of execu- tion have changed from earlier barbaric forms such as stoning, beheading, and quartering to more “civilized” (used loosely) forms, most notably, hanging, shooting, lethal gas, electrocution, and lethal injection. Although these forms of death appear more humane, there have been many issues related to the carrying out of these methods. Historically, persons have been put to death for minor crimes in addition to heinous crimes. For example, in the past persons could be put to death for marrying members of certain ethnic groups, trading with Indians, or even stealing. It was also common for persons identifi ed as witches to be put to death. As societies have evolved from their more primitive states, we have seen a shift in the types of crimes that are now punishable by death. Currently, crimes that are so heinous in nature and against the moral fi ber of society are reserved for the death penalty.

Although the Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia (1972) declared all death sentences unconstitu- tional, some states were quick to reform their death penalty statutes and had them enacted by the close of 1972. Still others reformed their death penalty statutes throughout the ’70s, being sure to meet the guided discretion and consideration of mitigating factors as handed down in the guidelines by the Supreme Court in Furman and Lockett v. Ohio (1978). As states revised their death penalty statutes and enacted new laws during the ’70s, Colorado added certain drug offenses as capital crimes, such as if a perpetrator tried to engage anyone under the age of 25 in any activity that included the use, sale, distribution or manufacture of narcotics (Cantwell, 1980). The ’80s also offered several instances of fi ne-tuning death penalty statutes in hopes of eliminating issues that could cause a death sentence to be overturned. Alabama enacted a statute giving juries some latitude in conviction offense options. Specifi cally, the new statute allowed the jury to now consider lesser included offenses in addition to the capital offense. Perhaps most important during this period, Alabama and Arizona established the bifurcated trial for its capital cases (Schechter-Ryan, 1982; Cantwell, 1983). Bifurcated trials enhance due process and give the defense team an opportunity to focus on and to prepare for the sentencing phase of the trial. Throughout the ’90s, states continued to make statutory changes to their death penalty statutes. While some of these changes dealt with adding aggravating and mitigating factors to existing statutes and automatic appeals/review of the conviction and sentence, several states also addressed the issue of age and transfers to adult court (Snell, 1999).

As one reviews the historical accounts of the death penalty, there is one aspect that stands out, and that is the place women occupy as recipients of the death penalty. Before examining women and the death penalty, it is important to put into context the position or status of women in society over time as we try to understand this obvious unbalanced scale of justice. We begin this journey to try and

 

 

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unravel what has led to such an unbalanced scale of justice by fi rst examining ideologies that have created in some minds “the second sex,” more commonly referred to as woman.

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