Does Gender Put Women On Death Row?
Michelle Byrom execution on hold.
On March 27, the Mississippi State Supreme Court issued an order denying the state’s motion to set an execution date for Michelle Byrom. Byrom, 57, was convicted of hiring a hit man to kill her abusive husband, Edward Byrom, Sr., in 1999. The Attorney General’s office had scheduled her execution for March 27. Byrom would have been the first woman executed in Mississippi in 70 years.
Byrom’s case has gotten little attention beyond the scope of anti-death penalty groups. Yet her case and that of many women on death row in the U.S. should raise serious questions among both civil rights advocates and feminists about why some women get the death penalty. How big a role do gender stereotypes play in the death penalty? Are women sentenced more harshly for violent crimes than men are?
Only two percent of America’s 3,095 death row inmates are women, but (setting aside the legitimacy or morality of the death penalty) the case can be made that none of the women currently on death row belong there.
Women on death row have always been presented at trial as "monsters," women who fall well outside the realm of heteronormative female behavior. Not surprisingly, then, a disproportionate number of women on death row in the U.S. are or have been lesbians and bisexuals, among them Margaret Allen, a cross-dressing lesbian on death row in Florida for the murder of another woman; Ana Maria Cardona, a Cuban immigrant lesbian, also on death row in Florida for the child abuse murder of one of her children.
Janeen Marie Snyder was convicted at 21 for murdering and sexually assaulting her 16 year old female victim and raping two other teenaged girls; Michelle Lyn Michaud, was convicted of murder and rape of a 22 year old woman. Snyder and Michaud are on death row in California.
In Texas, Lisa Ann Coleman was convicted of the child abuse murder of her lesbian lover’s nine-year-old son. Her, girlfriend, Marcella Williams, was sentenced to life in prison.
Debra Denise Brown has been on Indiana’s death row since 1986 for serial murder and serial rape of several girls she committed at 21.
Christa Gail Pike, on death row in Tennessee for murdering a 19 year old woman, was only 18 at the time of her sentencing in 1996. No other women on death row were as young at their sentencing. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for anyone convicted of murder while under the age of 18, but Pike was just over the cut-off.
The case of Michelle Byrom mirrors that of other women on death row–women who were victims of severe abuse at the hands of fathers, husbands and boyfriends and women who are mentally ill. But Byrom’s case may be the most egregious.
Byrom was in the hospital with pneumonia at the time of her husband’s murder. Her son, Edward Byrom, Jr., confessed to the crime and another man, Joey Gillis, Byrom Jr.’s good friend, was the person convicted of the actual shooting. Yet it was Byrom Jr. who had gunshot residue on his hands and clothes which Gillis did not. How could Michelle Byrom have hired a man who didn’t actually commit the murder?
The case gets more complicated. Edward Byrom Jr. and Gillis both served time in prison, but have since been released. Michelle Byrom is mentally ill from decades of abuse by her stepfather who not only sexually abused her but also pimped her out, and abuse by her husband. She has spent 15 years in prison and will be put to death for a murder she did not commit, while the convicted killer and confessed killer are both free.
Michelle Byrom’s story is painful and ugly. Edward Byrom, Sr. raped her, then married her. She was 15, he was 31. The years that followed were violent and terrible. Yet none of this was argued at Michelle Byrom’s trial as mitigating circumstances. Nor were the facts that her son had gunshot residue on his hands or that he told both a prison psychiatrist and wrote in letters that he had killed his father because of the endless abuse both he and his mother suffered. The letters–one describes the crime-of-passion murder after another incident of abuse in tragic detail–were not introduced at trial.
Michelle Byrom was urged to forego jury sentencing and have only the judge decide her fate. That judge sentenced her to death–even though he had testimony that Byrom Jr. had committed the murder. What’s more, Byrom’s defense attorneys never called any witnesses nor did they have their own expert witness testify to her damaged psychological state which would have made it impossible for her to plan and execute the murder.
The stories of the majority of women on death row point to clear patterns. Half the women on death row killed abusive husbands or boyfriends. The oldest woman on death row, Blanche Moore, allegedly killed her father, who had prostituted her to pay off his gambling debts. Moore turned 81 in February. Other women were accomplices to murder while in thrall to much older men who lured them into participating in crime sprees.
A dozen women–all mentally ill–killed their young children. Two others committed murder while in totally altered mental states. Lisa Montgomery killed a woman in order to steal her unborn baby. (The baby was later returned to her father when Montgomery was captured.) Linda Carty committed a similar crime in Texas.
Other women on death row have significant IQ deficits. Brandy Holmes, convicted of a murder committed at 23 with an older male accomplice, has fetal alcohol syndrome which has left her with the comprehension level of an 11 year old. Michelle Sue Tharp’s attorneys have repeatedly argued for her sentence to be commuted based on her low IQ.
In recent years several lesbians and bisexual women have been executed. Suzanne Basso was executed on Feb. 5 in Texas. Wanda Jean Allen was executed in 2001 for shooting her ex-girlfriend to death. Karla Faye Tucker was executed in 1998. The infamous Aileen Wuornos was executed in 2002.
Are women on death row more "monstrous" than men? Christina "Queen" Walters, a lesbian, had been the only Native American woman on death row until her sentence was commuted last year as part of the Racial Justice Act. Walters was a Crips gang leader in North Carolina. She was convicted of killing two young women, one 18, the other 21. She also shot another 25 year old woman who survived and testified against her.
Was Walters’ gang crime worse than that of myriad male gang leaders serving time? Or was she being made an example of by the courts?
As for Byrom–what of all the men who kill their spouses not because they have been abused, but because they are the abusers? And what of all the men who have killed their children or those of their girlfriends’?
A long-running argument against the death penalty has been the lack of consistency in application. Some states–California, Texas and Florida lead the nation–are known for heavy use of the death penalty. But nowhere is the inconstant use of the death penalty more obvious than in the women on death row. It’s time we paid attention.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She is a regular contributor toThe Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. Her book, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her novel, Ordinary Mayhem, will be published in fall 2014. @VABVOX