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morphine, but he would not be quiet, so Riggs smothered him. Leaving him dead, she went to kill her daughter. Instead of trying the injection again, she just smothered her. Ironically, she laid them out as if it was for some type of death ceremony in her bed before attempting suicide ( Riggs v. State , 1999). No one really knows why she decided to kill them. At her trial, Riggs asked to be sentenced to death and was not concerned with appealing the case. She merely wanted the state to put her to death. Riggs was one of those who have been identifi ed as ‘volunteers for execution’. Upon her execution, Christina Riggs became the fi rst woman executed in Arkansas since before the Civil War.

Oklahoma has the distinction of being the only state that executed women in 2001. The execu- tions of Wanda Jean Allen, Marilyn Plantz, and Lois Nadean Smith represented the most women executed in a single year since the modern era of the death penalty. Wanda Jean Allen was the fi rst women executed in Oklahoma since it became a state and the fi rst black woman put to death in the United States since the 1950s. The murder of Gloria Leathers was the second killing of a person with whom she (Wanda) was engaged in a lesbian relationship. Wanda Jean Allen met Gloria Jean Leathers while in prison for killing her fi rst lover, Dedra Pettus. Based on family accounts, Wanda Jean Allen was mentally challenged, but this information was not shared with the defense until after her conviction. Perhaps knowing the circumstances of her illness might have assisted the defense in preparing a diminished capacity defense that would have persuaded the jury to sentence her to life without parole.

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During 2002, two women were executed in the United States: Lynda Lyon Block (Alabama) and Aileen Wuornos (Florida). Lynda Lyon Block was different from most of the women on Alabama’s death row. She was from a middle-class background, educated, and still considered herself a “lady in every sense of the word.” As a Libertarian, she often stated that the government had no right to interfere in her life (Personal Communication, 1998). When questioned about the shooting of Offi cer Motley, she stated that the offi cer had no right to ask George (Block’s co-defendant) for identifi ca- tion since he did not believe in government issued documents such as driver’s licenses. Because she felt so strongly about the government’s interference in the lives of citizens, she represented herself and failed to follow the procedures of the court, noting on several occasions that the court did not have jurisdiction over her ( Lynda Lyon Block , 1996). Although she was very intelligent, Block would sometimes act as though she was illiterate. Aileen Wuornos has been the only woman sentenced to seven death sentences in the United States and has been identifi ed as a serial killer. She started killing men in December 1989 and continued until November 1990. All of her victims that have been found were shot multiple times and robbed. The body of Peter Siems was never found. It is not clear as to why Wuornos continued to prostitute while maintaining a lesbian relationship with Tyria Moore. Both the state and defense experts noted that she (Wuornos) suffered from some mental defi ciencies, but the state’s expert contended that the severity of the defect was not to the point that she could not make the right decisions ( Wuornos v. State of Florida , 1994). There was a break in the execution of women after the execution of Aileen Wuornos in 2002.

The next execution of a woman occurred in Texas in 2005. Frances Elaine Newton killed her entire family, a husband and two children, for pecuniary gain. All three victims had been shot to death. Five years later in 2010, Virginia executed Teresa Lewis, who hired two men to kill her husband and a stepson for the same reason, pecuniary gain. There was one execution of a woman in 2013 (Kimberly McCarthy in Texas); two in 2014 (Suzanne Basso and Lisa Coleman, both in Texas); and one in Georgia in 2015 (Kelly Gissendaner). As you can see, these executions follow the execution trend—most executions occur in the Southern region of the United States.

Of the executions that have occurred, three of the women, Allen, Wuornos, and Coleman, were in lesbian relationships. It is hard to determine if this extra-legal factor had any bearing on the convic- tions and sentences imposed given the heinousness of their crimes. Eight of the 16 women executed killed their spouses or signifi cant other. Riggs and Newton killed their own children, while Lewis and Coleman killed someone else’s child for whom their relationship could be identifi ed as a stepparent



30 Age, Class, and Sex Disparities


(Death Penalty Information Center Women and the Death Penalty, 2013). In recent years, we fi nd a decline in the number of death sentences imposed for both men and women.

The death penalty in the United States started to decline during the period 1996–2005 and has continued losing support (Death Penalty Information Center, 2015a). Previous research by Rice/ Kinder Institute for Urban Research (2000, 2014) found that when residents were asked in 2000 which penalty they preferred for fi rst-degree murder, a large number of the respondents/residents in the Houston area preferred the death penalty; however, by 2014 that number had fallen signifi cantly. During the same period, respondents/residents noted that they preferred life without parole 31% of the time in 2000, but by 2014, respondents/residents’ support for life without parole rose to 39.1%. Other polls conducted by Pew Research Center (April, 2015), also revealed that support for the death penalty is declining and varies based on race, gender, religion, and political identity. Specifi cally, more whites (63%) support the death penalty than minority groups.

For 2015, overall there were only 49 new death sentences imposed. “Nearly two-thirds of the new death sentences in the U.S. in 2015 were imposed in the same 2% of American counties that have dis- proportionately accounted for more than half of all death sentences in the past” (Death Penalty Informa- tion Center (2015b)/The Death Penalty in 2015: Year End Report). In 2016, death sentences were at an all-time low. The notable absence of death sentences in 2016 offers hope that the decline will continue.

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