Any time a person receives a death sentence and must sit on death row, it captivates the attention of the American public. The public becomes even more engrossed in the story when it involves women, once referred to as the fairer sex. Even in the 21st century, many find it hard to imagine women being convicted of such heinous crimes that merit capital punishment. Statistically, fewer women end up on death row. According to Death Penalty Focus, women on death row make up only 1.87 percent of the total death row population. The stories of many of these women still capture public attention and the media because of the degree of violence and the women’s backgrounds.
Aileen Wuornos (1956-2002)
Aileen Wuornos gained notoriety for the murder of seven men between 1989 and 1990; men she killed while working as a prostitute in Florida. She was convicted of six of the murders. On October 9, 2002, the state of Florida executed her via lethal injection. Throughout the trial, Wuornos claimed that she killed her “johns” in self-defense. It wasn’t just the fact that she was a woman; her tragic life story gave the public mixed feelings about her. She was abused most of her life, had a child that was given up for adoption, and was periodically homeless. Despite the continued tragedies she experienced throughout her life, though, many supported her death sentence. Her life became the subject of books, documentaries, a television movies, and “Monster,” a feature film for which Charlize Theron won an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Karla Faye Tucker (1959-1998)
Karla Faye Tucker, another high-profile case of a woman on death row, stirred controversy as her execution date approached on February 3, 1998. She was convicted for a 1983 double murder by the state of Texas, becoming the first woman executed in the state since 1863. In 1983, she and her boyfriend, Danny Garrett, murdered Jerry Dean and Deborah Thornton after a weekend of drugs and drinking. Tucker and Garrett savagely murdered their two victims using a pickaxe, almost decapitating Dean in the process. Tucker fought Thornton before finally dealing the death blow. Her conviction did not garner much attention but she gained a following after her conversion to Christianity. Many people even wanted her death sentence commuted to life imprisonment because of her public remorse. Prominent public figures, such as Pope John Paul II and Newt Gingrich, supported her. Governor George W. Bush, however, did not authorize a stay of execution and Ms. Tucker was put to death.
Barbara Graham (1923-1955)
Barbara Graham, nicknamed “Bloody Babs,” became the third woman executed in California when she faced the gas chamber on June 3, 1955. She and two accomplices, Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins, were convicted of murdering 64-year-old widow Mabel Monohan. Graham had spent most of her life in and out of various correctional facilities, from reform schools for girls to adult prisons. She did not have a stable upbringing. Her mother was a teen when she was born and Graham was shuffled between family members and foster homes. She ran away from home, became involved in prostitution, had children she couldn’t care for, and had multiple marriages and affairs. She and her accomplices murdered Monohan based on the belief that she had a small fortune in her home. Graham pistol- whipped the elderly woman and suffocated her. She became a media darling because she was an attractive, young mother. In 1958, Susan Hayward gave a sympathetic, Academy Award-winning performance as Graham in “I Want to Live.” The movie suggested she was innocent, omitting evidence supporting her guilt.
Ethel Leta Juanita Spinelli “The Duchess” (1889-1941)
On November 21, 1941, Ethel Leta Juanita Spinelli, better known as “The Duchess,” gained fame as the first woman executed in San Quentin’s gas chamber and the first to be executed in California in nearly 100 years. Spinelli led a gang of young criminals during the Depression. She led the group of robbers and murderers as efficiently as a mother presides over her household. Spinelli was convicted later of murdering one of her gang members, Robert Sherrod, because she feared he couldn’t keep a murder to himself.
Sherrod was only 18 years old when he was killed. Albert Ives, a 23-year-old gang member, turned on The Duchess because he feared he’d be the next to go. According to his statement, Ives, Spinelli, her boyfriend, Mike Simeone, and gang member, Gordon Hawkins, drugged Sherrod and later drowned him.
Ruth Snyder (1895-1928)
Captured in a famous photograph, Ruth Snyder was executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in New York on January 12, 1928. She was convicted of murdering her husband, Albert. With the help of her lover, Henry Judd Gray, she plotted to kill her husband and reap the benefits of his insurance policy. At the time, it was the crime of the century, garnering nationwide attention for its salacious details. Snyder had tried killing her husband multiple times before she and Gray staged the murder to look like a burglary. Despite her attempts to conceal the crime, police found the supposedly stolen goods. The lovers turned on each other, leading to their convictions. Her story inspired the 1943 novel “Double Indemnity” by James M. Cain, which was later adapted into a film of the same name. The photo of Snyder strapped in the electric chair has become part of popular culture.
Hannah Ocuish (1774-1786)
Hanged on December 20, 1786, Hannah Ocuish is thought to be the youngest person sentenced to death in the United States. The execution occurred in New London, Connecticut. At only 12 years of age, Ocuish was accused of murdering six-year-old Eunice Bolles. She and her victim, the daughter of a wealthy farmer, had argued over strawberries. Ocuish, a young Pequot Native American, had the mind of a small child. Apparently, Bolles saw Ocuish steal and eat strawberries and informed on her. The six-year old went missing on July 21, 1786, and her beaten and choked body was later found on a road between New London and Norwich. Ocuish told the police that she had seen four unknown boys in the area. Suspicious of Ocuish’s story, the police interrogated her. At first she denied involvement, but changed her story when the police questioned the young girl at the Bolles’ home in front of Eunice’s body.
These women on death row include those who had not yet reached maturity, who struggled with personal demons, and who on the surface seemed unlikely to commit such egregious crimes. The stories of these women continue to stand as tales showing that even the fairer sex is capable of crimes that warrant capital punishment. Though many of them took place decades and even centuries ago, they have inspired media attention, and the public still clamors for details about these women and their crimes.