Why feminists should oppose the death penalty

Feminists should be against the death penalty on the basis that the criminal justice system is built upon sexism, racism and class prejudice

Artillery Row

Lisa Montgomery is currently the only woman on federal death row in the US, and the first woman facing the federal death penalty for 67 years. William Barr, the US attorney general until December 2020, has designated Montgomery, now 49, to be the eighth prisoner to be judicially killed since he decided to restart federal executions in 1988.

In the US, homicide is the leading cause of death for pregnant women

Montgomery’s crime was undoubtedly heinous. In 2004, she strangled Bobbie Jo Stinnett who was eight months pregnant and cut out the baby. Montgomery then took the baby home with her and attempted to pass it off as her own. She was soon tracked down and the baby was found to be in good health. This is known as “foetal abduction”. There have been approximately 30 similar crimes carried out in the US over the last three decades.

In October 2007, a jury in the District Court for the Western District of Missouri found Montgomery guilty of kidnapping resulting in death, and unanimously recommended a death sentence. The court imposed it, and her conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal, and her request for clemency was rejected by every court that considered it. Montgomery is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on 12 January.

Women are rarely sentenced to death and executions of women are even rarer. Feminist lawyers and campaigners I have spoken to in the US insist that women who are sentenced to death are often perceived as acting against “feminine norms” or resisting sex stereotypes.

“Our criminal justice system routinely fails to protect or vindicate crimes of violence against women—leaving millions of victims to cope on their own, many suffering years of horrific abuse without response from a society that claims to stand for justice,” says feminist lawyer Megan Baldwin. “One such woman is Lisa Montgomery.”

Two years after Montgomery was sentenced to death, serial killer Andre Crawford avoided the death penalty. Crawford murdered 11 women on Chicago’s South Side over the course of six years, luring his victims to abandoned buildings in order to strangle, stab, beat and rape them. A sadistic necrophiliac, Crawford would rape the women as they lay dying, and would later return to have sex with the corpses. Crawford was at the time one of Illinois’s most prolific serial killers since John Wayne Gacy.

Baldwin is a staunch critic of any form of capital punishment, despite bearing witness to the most appalling crimes committed by men against women and children in her role as executive director of a domestic violence shelter in Florida. For Baldwin, women and men who grew up with hellish abuse and come from disenfranchised communities are most likely to receive the death penalty.

“Why did President Trump and William Barr put Montgomery on the list of 12 federal prisoners they want to execute before they leave office on 20 January 2021, along with six black men, an indigenous man and a white man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease,” she asks?

“In Lisa Montgomery’s case, it seems, our current government has chosen to finally respond to the impact of violence against women,” says Baldwin, “by ordering the killing of one of its most wounded victims.”

Women who commit violent crimes are usually punished more harshly than their male counterparts

From a young age, Montgomery endured brutal physical and sexual assaults at the hands of her mother and stepfather, leading to severe mental illness. Her stepfather began raping her pre-puberty and would bring groups of men home to do the same in return for household repairs. The men would beat her if they were not satisfied with her “performance”, and many would urinate on her afterwards. A cousin, now a deputy Sheriff, testified that Montgomery told him at the time what was happening to her but that he felt powerless to intervene.

Aged 18, Montgomery married her stepbrother and went on to give birth to four children before she was forcibly sterilised in 1990. Retreating into alcoholism, drug abuse and psychosis, Montgomery, aged 36, convinced herself that her current partner, another abusive man, would leave her if she didn’t give him a baby. This led to the murder of Stinnett and the abduction of her baby.

In presenting evidence of Montgomery’s history of abuse, dissociative condition and mental illness, all that was offered by defence counsel about her history of abuse was a poem about rape. Therefore the jury lacked the most basic information about why Montgomery took another person’s life and, consequently, whether they should recommend that she lose her own.

The so-called serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who was executed in Florida in 2002 for the murders of seven men, had a very similar background to Montgomery.

When she was four, Wuornos and her brother were sent to live with their alcoholic and abusive grandparents having been abandoned by their teenaged mother. The father was in prison for the rape of a child. Wuornos, from an early age, was raped by a number of male relatives, and aged 11 began to trade sex for cigarettes and alcohol to men and boys in her neighbourhood.

Wuornos became pregnant aged 14 as a result of yet another brutal rape and her baby was given up for adoption. She became homeless and sold sex on the highways of Florida to survive. During this time Wuornos was raped on countless occasion by violent johns who felt entitled to treat her as subhuman.

The tenuous coping strategies Wuornos had managed to build throughout her life began to dissolve, and she found it hard to deal with the everyday abuse she encountered.

Following a brutal rape and beating by a john, Wuornos shot him with the pistol she carried to protect herself. Within the space of weeks, she shot six more men, claiming they had all raped and otherwise brutalised her. Wuornos was executed by the state of Florida in 2002, 12 years after her conviction for the murders.

The pending execution of Montgomery, who is diagnosed with a severe mental illness, has prompted an outpouring of global revulsion. A coalition of more than 1000 organisations, academics and survivors campaigning against violence against women have written to President Trump asking him to grant clemency.

Women who use violence are more likely to be motivated by fear, while men are motivated by control

Kenna Quinet, an associate criminal justice professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, is co-author of the book The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder (2018). “These women are clearly delusional,” Quinet told a journalist last year, following the murder of 19-year-old Marlen Ochoa-Lopez in a foetal abduction case. At the centre of such cases, Quinet said, it is most often an issue of the perpetrator making “an extremely dysfunctional, controlling, psychotic attempt to keep a man in a relationship.”

In the US, homicide is the leading cause of death for pregnant women, and the perpetrators are almost always violent current or ex male partners. These homicides rarely get the death penalty. In many instances of domestic homicide, the women are seen as somehow culpable for their own deaths.

Is the death penalty ever justified? I think not and was even against it for the so-called “Yorkshire Ripper” Peter Sutcliffe and consider it to be an abhorrence. However, I would be interested to hear the views of those who do support it and whether or not it is likely to survive in Joe Biden’s presidency.

I ask Elizabeth Flock, a journalist and writer who has explored issues relating to women who commit violent crimes, why women are far less likely to commit acts of physical and sexual violence than men? As Flock points out, numerous studies show that women who use violence are more likely to be motivated by self-defence and fear, while men are motivated by control.

Women who commit violent crimes are usually punished more harshly than their male counterparts despite being far less likely to carry out acts of sadistic or serious violence or homicide. “Women who wield violence often have dealt with severe trauma earlier in life,” says Flock. “Studies of prison populations of women bear that out; the vast majority have suffered mental, physical and/or sexual trauma prior to their criminal history.”

Helen Zahavi is the author of Dirty Weekend, a controversial novel published in 1991 about Bella who shot and killed seven men over a weekend. The men had all (separately) attacked her and Bella acted in self-defence. “What she did was neither random nor gratuitous,” Zahavi tells me.

Many of the most hostile reactions to the book came from female journalists and reviewers, Zahavi points out: “It was as if the very idea of a woman daring to liberate herself from a harsh social reality were somehow taboo, something entirely beyond the pale.”

I took part in a debate about whether or not Dirty Weekend was an incitement of violence towards men. I made the point that swathes of male writers produce novels that feature the most horrific violence towards women including acts of sexual depravity and the murder of females motivated by nothing other than sexual gratification.

The three male panellists were furious about Dirty Weekend. How dare women fight back after rape and abuse? They all agreed that Bella’s crimes were so terrible that she should be given the death penalty. I was astounded: they were so affronted that their liberal principles were replaced by angry vengeful ranting.

The death penalty perpetuates a view of inmates as monsters beyond redemption or rehabilitation, and it has no place in a civilised society. It is nothing more than barbaric revenge.

The death penalty is an example of calculated, cold-blooded, premeditated murder. As a feminist who has spent my entire adult life campaigning to eradicate violent crimes towards women and children, I have seen the devastating effects of child abuse, rape and sexually motivated murder. But I would still be against the death penalty for these men.

I can understand why many believe the only fitting punishment for committing an act of cold-blooded murder is death. But the death penalty does not deter crime, is expensive to implement, and contravenes every human rights convention.

Feminists should be against the death penalty on the basis that women are treated more harshly within the criminal justice system, and that the system is built upon sexism, racism and class prejudice. Despite this, there are feminists that think it is appropriate to hand it down to those men that commit extreme acts of violence towards women.

In 2004 the late feminist writer Andrea Dworkin wrote about the case of Scott Peterson, who murdered his wife – heavily pregnant at the time with their son Connor – so he could lead a carefree life with his girlfriends on the money from their marital home. “He deserves to die,” she angrily stated when I argued that there can be no justification for murder by the state. Dworkin, although always uncompromising when it came to calling men to account for violence against women, was a classic liberal when it came to the criminal justice system and hated the US tendency to hang ‘em and flog ‘em. But she had her line in the sand. To Dworkin, some crimes are so monstrous the perpetrator has to die.

Killing Lisa Montgomery by lethal injection would be nothing less than treating her as subhuman

Lisa Montgomery gave Bobbie Jo Stinnett the death penalty and deprived her baby of ever knowing its mother. It is a terrible tragedy, and one that most will struggle to forgive or even understand. And here is why arguing that the death penalty should only be handed down to the monsters who have committed the “worst” crimes is fallible. In my opinion, Aileen Wuornos had a compelling defence in that she had been sexually violated by men all of her life, and the abusive treatment by the punters she shot dead tipped her over the edge into insanity.

Andre Crawford, on the other hand, tortured, raped and killed women for nothing more than sexual gratification, even raping their corpses.

Lisa Montgomery has known nothing but abuse, neglect and horrendous sexual and physical violence her entire life. She had been driven mad by the pain inflicted upon her, and would not, in any just system, be held accountable for first degree, cold-blooded murder.

Montgomery was due to be executed by lethal injection on 8 December but was given a brief reprieve after her two lawyers contracted Covid-19 while visiting her in prison. Killing this woman by lethal injection would be nothing less than treating her as subhuman – whether clemency will be granted remains to be seen.


Update: Lisa Montgomery was executed by lethal injection on 13 January 2021.

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