Melissa Lucio will be executed on April 27, 2022, according to a date set by Texas 138th District Court Judge Gabriela Garcia on January 14, 2022. That is when the 53-year-old will be sentenced to death for the 2008 murder of her two-year-old daughter, an allegation she continues to deny. Also notable is that it will be the first state-sponsored execution of a woman since Lisa Montgomery was executed by the federal Bureau of Prisons on January 12, 2021. That emptied BOP’s death row of women. In the meantime, there are still 52 sentenced women held in state prisons, some of whom, like Lucio and Christa Pike, are getting closer to being put to death daily.
Colleen Slemmer, 19, a fellow participant in a Knoxville youth job program, was murdered in 1996, and Pike has been on Tennessee’s death row since then. Parker believed Slemmer was attempting to steal Parker’s 17-year-old boyfriend, which led to her conviction and conviction of murder. Her execution date was requested by state Attorney General Herbert Slatery (R) on August 27, 2020, and the Tennessee Supreme Court granted the request. In response, her attorneys filed a petition on June 7, 2021, requesting that her sentence be commuted.
When it comes to Montgomery, Pike’s fate is intertwined with hers both by gender and by circumstance. Montgomery was the first woman to be executed in the United States since 1953 and one of 11 people executed in what Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor described as a “spree” during the final days of former President Donald J. Trump’s administration (R).
Another instance is that the death sentence is reserved for extremely egregious offenses in some jurisdictions. In her pocket, Pike preserved a chunk of Slemmer’s skull as a memento of the experience. Montgomery, after she strangled Bobbie Jo Stinett, ripped the eight-month-old infant from her womb and tried to pass the child off as her own, according to the prosecution case.
However, there is another factor that both women have in common: they have both experienced tremendous trauma. Montgomery’s youth was ruined by gang rape and sex trafficking, which was perpetrated primarily by family members, according to her counsel, leaving her brain-damaged and profoundly mentally ill. “Before she was even born, she suffered brain damage,” according to Pike’s attorneys, who claim her mother’s extensive drinking throughout pregnancy contributed to the situation. They went on to say that her mother’s boyfriend abused and raped her as a youngster, leaving her bipolar and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result.
Woman in prison, by the numbers
Counted among the 15 women serving life sentences in state and federal prisons around the country.
In 2019, there were around 222,000 women jailed in the United States, with little under half of them—107,955—incarcerated in state and federal prisons.
The vast majority (more than 6,600), or one in every 15, have been sentenced to what is or will be a life sentence, which can be defined as life without parole, life with the chance of release, or a term of 50 years or more. In contrast, as of 2021, almost 97 percent of the 204,000 Americans receiving life sentences were men, accounting for one out of every seven male convicts in the United States. However, the chasm is closing. According to the Sentencing Project, the number of women sentenced to life in prison increased by 43 percent between 2018 and 2020, while the number of men sentenced to life in prison decreased by 29 percent.
In addition to the federal government, there are currently 27 states that allow for the execution of women who have committed homicide. In the United States, there are 52 women who have been sentenced to death and another 2,000 who have been sentenced to life without parole (LWOP). Both of these organizations have been virtually sentenced to death in jail. There are 15 states having women on death row, and only six states do not have a woman serving long-term incarceration without parole (LWOP).
Several characteristics of the women who are receiving these draconian sentences stand out. One in every 39 jailed Black women is serving LWOP, compared to one in every 59 incarcerated white women. Six percent of the overall number of women serving LWOP sentences are Latina or Latina-identified. Women of color account for 42 percent of the 52 women on death row in the United States. The vast majority of women serving life without parole or a death sentence are in prison for homicide.
Women who commit homicide are predominantly black, according to the FBI Supplementary Homicide Report, with white women accounting for 48% of all female homicides. As a result, Black women are prosecuted for homicide at a rate that is almost eight times higher than the general population.
Researchers discovered that women who were convicted of homicide were more than a decade older than men who were convicted of the same crime. Three quarters of female homicide victims are 25 or older, while only 48% of male murderers are less than 25 years old. The average age of a woman on death row was 36 at the time of her crime, and the average age of a woman serving life without parole was 33 years old. However, there are at least 32 women serving LWOP for an offense they committed while they were under the age of 18, one of them was only 14 years old at the time of the incident.
The Supreme Court of the United States determined in 2005 that the death sentence was unconstitutional for those who committed their crime while under the age of eighteen. However, two women are on death row for crimes they committed when they were 18 years old, making up part of the 20 percent of those sentenced to death who were under the age of 25 at the time of their offense.
That is the age at which science has determined that the adolescent brain has reached its maximum development. Individuals will have a more difficult time managing their conduct until that time, and they will also be unable to predict the repercussions or consequences of their activities until that time. A series of opinions by the United States Supreme Court has differentiated liability for violent crimes committed by individuals under the age of 18, although research may ultimately prove that the threshold should be 25 years old.
Despite the fact that all of the women facing the death penalty were convicted of a homicide-related charges, several of them did not kill the victim personally. These so-called felony-murder convictions are significantly more common among women who are serving long-term prison sentences.
Those sentenced to mandatory minimums must also serve the same amount of time regardless of age, race, or gender; this is mandated under mandatory minimum sentencing statutes. It is therefore not permissible to take into account the involvement of a woman who played a minor role in the crime (many are the getaway driver) or who was coerced into the crime by an intimate partner when determining guilt or innocence.
According to data gathered on killings committed between 2000 and 2005 by women currently serving LWOP, personal partners or family members were the victims in half of the cases 2000 and 2005. Only 20 percent of men convicted of homicide targeted the same type of victims as the rest of the population, according to statistics.
Women incarcerated for committing a violent crime increased by 2 percent in the twelve years between 2008 and 2020, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In addition, the number of women receiving life sentences has climbed by 19 percent, while the number of women serving long-term prison sentences has increased by 43 percent.
Pernicious Effect of Trauma Under-appreciated
When it comes to women who commit crimes, there is one aspect that appears to have a correlate with the severity of the sentences they receive: trauma. However, same factor appears to be given little to no attention when it comes to men who commit crimes.
Almost all women who perpetrate violence, like Lisa Montgomery and Christa Pike, have themselves been victims of violence at some point in their lives. One-third of women serving life sentences in prison have attempted suicide, which is a shocking statistic. In recent years, we have learned more about the consequences of physical, sexual, and even verbal abuse in criminal activity. Many women who commit violent crimes have been harmed by the abuse of a romantic relationship or other intimate partners. According to the findings of a study of 99 women serving life sentences in prison, 17 percent of those women had murdered their intimate partner.
Although there is ample evidence and understanding of the impacts that trauma can have, trauma is still only infrequently recognized as a mitigating factor in criminal activity. Fortunately, New York legislators passed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA), Criminal Procedure Law 440.47(1), which provides relief for people who have been sentenced to eight years or more in prison for an offense in which domestic abuse played a significant role but have not yet served their sentence.
There are several restrictions on the types of offenses to which the legislation applies, and several are specifically excluded, including first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and sex offenses. Still, reformers argue that the DVSJA is a step in the right direction toward recognizing the link between violent crime and trauma, a development that may one day be used to improve men’s sentencing. For the time being, efforts are concentrated on safeguarding women from a judicial system that does not distinguish between them and males.