(WOMENSENEWS)–On March 9, Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn signed a measure ending the state’s death penalty. Its passage was due in part to a woman–State Rep. Karen A. Yarbrough, who sponsored the House version of the bill. Like New Mexico State Rep. Gail Chasey, who authored the bill ending capital punishment there, Yarbrough is one of many women driving the national momentum to abolish capital punishment in the United States.
This comes as no surprise: Polls and surveys from the 1970s to the present show a consistent, enduring "death penalty gender gap" between men and women, with fewer women supporting it.
One of the women now fighting hard against the death penalty is Martina Correia, the sister of Georgia death row prisoner Troy Davis.
Davis, who is African American, was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1989 murder of white Savannah policeman Mark MacPhail. No evidence was produced linking Davis to the murder. Of the nine witnesses who originally implicated Davis in the crime, seven have recanted, saying that they were pressured into naming him. Nevertheless, the presiding judge of the evidentiary hearing held last year regarding Davis’ innocence ruled that Davis failed to establish his innocence. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Davis’ appeal of the judge’s ruling on March 28. His only hope is for the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant him clemency.
There exists comprehensive research indicating the possibility of racial bias in death penalty convictions and sentencing. A landmark 1983 study found that people of any race who kill white victims are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill African American victims. More recent reports have found underlying racial patterns in the dearth of African American jurors on homicide trials and the disproportionate percentage of people of color on death rows.
A Balancing Act
Correia is balancing advocacy for her brother with raising her teenage son, battling stage IV breast cancer and dealing with the passing this month of her mother Virginia. Correia told the Associated Press her mother had "died of a broken heart." Correia pours her energy into campaigning for increased funding for breast cancer research, as well as for death penalty abolition.
Although her brother’s case and her health issues are taking their toll, Correia insisted in The Grio that, "Until there is no breath left in my body I will fight for Troy, fight against the injustice of the death penalty, because this battle is bigger than Troy. It is a war against a system that is not impartial, a system that cares less for fairness and more for finality."
When speaking to Women’s eNews, she added, "When you have a relative on death row, you have continual mourning, a wound that’s compounded. Some people think when they execute a death row prisoner, that’s the end of it, but it’s not."
There is too much doubt in Davis’ case to execute him, she has said, adding, "No matter the final outcome of this case, my war against the death penalty is far from over."
Historically, women were at the forefront of the modern death penalty repeal effort. Women cofounded the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment in the 1920s and female leaders in national, civil, legal and human rights groups helped establish the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in 1976.
"Women have always taken responsibility for ensuring the health and security of communities and families," observed Diann Rust-Tierney, the coalition’s executive director in an interview with Women’s eNews. "Capital punishment drains funding from effective crime prevention and law enforcement that protects our families and communities. It convicts innocent people."
A deep understanding exists among women, especially women of color, Rust-Tierney adds, about the ways in which the legal system has treated people differently based on race, class and gender and are particularly attuned to how such biases play out within the death penalty.
Impact on Victims’ Families
The impacts of capital punishment on victims’ families, as well as wrongful convictions, are among the concerns of Vicki Schieber, the chair of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. Schieber became an anti-death penalty activist after losing her 23-year-old daughter Shannon to homicide in 1998. She testifies in legislative hearings and conducts national speaking tours. Schieber and her husband Sylvester opposed the death penalty for their daughter’s killer.
Often, family members of homicide victims who are against capital punishment find their views challenged by friends, relatives and prosecutors. "This equating of justice and ‘closure’ with the death penalty are assumptions so widespread and so unquestioned that survivors who oppose the death penalty are sometimes questioned about their beliefs in a way that suggests that they don’t want justice for their loved ones," Schieber said in a Catholic Review YouTube video.
"After Shannon was killed, I started attending murder victims’ families’ support groups, where I learned about all the innocent people who are mistakenly convicted," Schieber told Women’s eNews.
Between 1973 and the present, 138 people have been exonerated from death rows nationally by DNA and other evidence that proved them innocent.
Economic Downturn Raises Questions
As the country’s economic downturn forces drastic cuts in states’ budgets, more legislators are taking a hard look at the high costs of capital punishment, particularly those in such cash-strapped states such as California.
"California’s death penalty system will cost taxpayers more than $1 billion over the next five years," Stefanie Faucher, associate director of the San Francisco-based Death Penalty Focus, told Women’s eNews. "By replacing the death penalty with alternative punishments that keep our communities safe, we could instead use these precious funds on education, health care, child and domestic abuse prevention, mental health services, effective public safety programs and additional services for victims of crime."
Various religious faiths are actively working against capital punishment, with women of faith in prominent roles. One, Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, detailed her experience as spiritual advisor to Louisiana death row prisoner Patrick Sonnier in her book "Dead Man Walking," which was adapted for film, stage and opera. The experience led her to her current work of traveling the country urging an end to capital punishment and counseling death row prisoners and their families and the families of murder victims.
"When I became the first woman in Louisiana to accompany a prisoner (Sonnier) to the death chamber, the prison chaplains, all males, were bent out of shape," she recalled in an interview with Women’s eNews. "They said, ‘This is a man’s job.’ They could do their duty, turn the switch and execute someone as a job. They could be passive and legitimize their work instead of resisting it. I wasn’t on the (corrections) payroll, so I could just do what Jesus would do: Be with the marginalized, the cast aside, the despised. It changed my life forever."
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Margaret Summers is the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s director of communications.
For more information:
To help Martina Correia stop her brother Troy Davis’ execution
Click here for a petition to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles; here for a clergy sign-on letter; and here for an attorneys’ sign-on letter.
Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights:
The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty: