Notorious Women of Death Row

It is rare to find women sitting on death row, but a number of notorious women have been given a sentence of capital punishment.

As of January 1, 2010, 61 women were incarcerated in our nation’s death rows, consisting of only 1.87% of the entire death row population, according to Over the last 100 years, only 40 women have been executed and only 12 since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Interestingly enough, between 1973 and 1999, the percentage of women murderers receiving capital punishment sank to historic lows, but the percentage since 2001 has jumped back to the average. Retired Ohio Northern University law professor, Victor Strau, publishes a yearly report regarding death penalty statistics. He found that the rate of men being sentenced to death has decreased but the percentage of female sentences has risen from two percent to six percent in 2011.

Women only commit ten percent of the murders in the United States and they are more likely to kill a family member or an intimate rather than a complete stranger. As of December 31, 2005 a quarter of the women on death row killed their husbands, boyfriends or partners. Another quarter of the population had killed their own children. Many women sitting on death row are victims of substance abuse or they suffer from a mental illness along with either being abused as a child, during a relationship or both. But every woman has their own story and their reasons behind their crimes. Some of the most noted women that have been executed are Aileen Wuornos, Karla Faye Tucker and Teresa Lewis. The following are their stories.

Aileen Wuornos

She is considered Americas’ first female serial killer, even though she isn’t, but she was one of the only female killers who appeared to have targeted her victims, all of whom were strangers who were all shot be her. Aileen Wuornos has been the subject of countless books, movies and even an opera. Charlize Theron played the part of Wuornos in the Movie “Monster”, earning Theron an academy award.

Wuornos had told psychologists after being convicted that her mother had abandoned her and her brother. She was only an infant at the time. Her schizophrenic father was in prison for the rape and murder of a 7 year-old when he hung himself in his cell. Aileen and her brother were forced to live with their maternal grandparents. Her grandfather was an abusive alcoholic. One of her grandfather’s friends had caused her to become pregnant. She was forced to carry the baby to term and then put him up for adoption. Her grandfather kicked her out for her promiscuous behavior and Wuornos turned to prostitution for survival. At 17 years of age, Wuornos hitch-hiked to Denver and then to Florida using prostitution for money to survive, but her high risk behavior led to several rapes and beatings along the way.

She met Tyria Moore in Florida who became her lover and soul mate. In December of 1989, Wuornos got into Richard Mallory’s car where according to Wuornos, something went wrong and she shot him and disposed of his body. Two weeks later the body was found wrapped in a rug with four gunshot wounds to the chest. She admitted her crime to Tyria when she returned to the hotel they were staying in.

Her next murder wasn’t for another five months and occurred in May of 1991. A truck belonging to David Spears was found abandoned on the highway. His body was found 60 miles down the road. Five days later another body was found shot with a .22 caliber bullet and the vehicle found about 60 miles down the road. Police at this point did not know they were dealing with a serial killer. The break in the case came when an eyewitness saw two women taking the license plates off a car that belonged to a missing missionary before running into the woods. A composite sketch was done but not distributed until three more bodies were found. All the murders were committed in five different counties making it difficult to tie them together. Eventually, a task force was formed that identified Tyria Moore and someone named “Lee.” Lee was a nickname for Wuornos who was arrested after violating parole. Moore was also arrested. Investigators pressured Moore to tell what she knew of the crimes. Moore admitted that Aileen had murdered these men and agreed to get her to talk on tape. Aileen eventually went to the police and confessed to the murders but said that they were in self-defense. She argued that while she was hitch-hiking, these men picked her up, propositioned her and when they became violent, she shot them.

Wuornos’s defense psychiatrist testified that based on her background, she was paranoid about men. The prosecutor did not agree, painting Wuornos as a predator who lured men with sex before taking their money, possessions and their lives.

On January 28, 1992 the jury recommended the death penalty. Ms. Wuornos was executed by lethal injection in Florida on October 9, 2002.

Karla Faye Tucker

Karla was 23 years old with tomboy qualities when her and her boyfriend, Daniel Garrett, decided to break into Jerry Lynn Dean’s house in 1983. Karla was a bit of a risk-taker and enjoyed living life in the fast lane. Karla didn’t like Jerry and thought about breaking into his house and stealing his Harley-Davidson motorcycle pants and some motorcycle parts.

As they entered the house, they heard Jerry waking up on the futon. Karla jumped on Dean, scaring him but giving her an enormous rush. As Jerry Dean began to struggle, she straddled him to hold him down and grabbed a pickaxe. The more he struggled, the more determined she became to keep him down so Karla began hitting him with the axe, inflicting 11 stab wounds to his throat and chest area. She confessed later that with every blow of the pickaxe, she had an orgasm. Dean’s girlfriend, Deborah Thornton, got involved in the fight but Daniel had to take care of her because Karla was too tired after she murdered Dean. Karla bragged about her crime to her sister who would later turn both Karla and Daniel into the police.

Karla remained a puzzle to police, investigators and those involved in her trial. She was a diminutive and pretty girl who was never abused, raped, nor exposed to anything in a violent nature, but she had been doing drugs since she was 10 years old before later turning to prostitution. No one knew where the aggression came from. In 1984, she was sentenced to death and executed in 1998 becoming the first women to be executed in the state of Texas since 1863.

Teresa Lewis

Teresa Lewis was sentenced to death over the September 2010 murder of her husband and stepson for life insurance money. Lewis hired two men; her boyfriend, Mathew Shallenberger, and friend, Rodney Fuller, who were later both sentenced to life in prison. Lewis was believed to be the master-mind of the operation but as the investigation continued, there was speculation that Shallenberger was the leader. Shallenberger told investigators that “he knew from the moment he met her that she was someone he could manipulate.” He refused to sign the affidavit and actually tore it up and ate part of it. Lewis’s IQ test also showed that she was borderline mentally retarded and could be easily manipulated. In 2006, Shallenberger committed suicide from his cell.

Lewis requested clemency from the Governor of Virginia but was denied because there was “no compelling reason to set aside the sentence that was imposed on her by the circuit courts,” and no medical professional ever concluded that she was mentally retarded under Virginia law. There was also ample evidence to suggest she was the master-mind because she offered money for them to do the job and even involved her teenage daughter by offering her for sex. Lewis had searched her husband’s pockets for money as he was dying and waited until he was dead before calling for help.

Teresa Lewis was executed by lethal injection in October 2002. She was the first women in Virginia to be executed in more than a century and the first women in the United States in five years.

Women in the United States are more frequently getting into trouble with the law with arrest rates have risen five percent since 2000, while according to the US Justice Department, arrest rates for men have stayed the same. Because of the rise in arrests, it may not be surprising to see more women serving time on death row.