My paper is a discussion and a debate on a subject that includes the fifth,
sixth, seventh, and eighth amendments of the U.S. Constitution. All these
amendments have one thing in common: trials. The fifth amendment is The
Rights of the Accused. The sixth is The Right to a Fair Trial, the seventh is
Jury Trial in Civil Cases, and the eighth is Bail and Punishment. The subject
which involves all these amendments is that of gender bias and the death
penalty. I will discuss and debate the relations between this topic and the
amendments in my paper, and offer my personal opinions. Are more crimes
committed by men than women? Should more women be put on death row just to
balance the figure of men vs. women on death row? Could the male society of
criminals sue, claiming the Death Penalty is unjustly applied? These
questions, and many others will hopefully be answered in my paper.
To look at this subject more in detail, I have chosen a specific case, set in 1895. The woman who was put on death row at this time was Maria Barbella, an Italian woman who moved to New York City. She had killed her disloyal fianc╚e the morning of April twenty sixth, 1895 with a razor. She was the first woman sentenced to die in the electric chair, and since she did not speak very good English, it was hard for her to defend herself. The Countess Di Brazzř, Cora Slocomb, heard about the trial and traveled to New York City to "set an appeal to save Maria Barbella which was, ultimately, successful"1.
Yet if Maria Barbella had been a man, there probably would not be such a commotion. Cora Slocomb would not have noticed the murder of Domenico Cataldo (Maria's fianc╚e) on the front page of the newspaper if the killer was a man. I think there is still a sense of chivalry among humans. I know if I were a man on death row, I would be mad at society for saving a woman from being executed just because she did not seem so threatening to society as a man like me. II. The General Issue at Stake: the Death Penalty
The death penalty has been going on since the beginning of humanity.
Although now there are not quite as many executions, there have still been
many deaths. Twenty thousand people in America have been executed since the
colonial times. Only four hundred of them have been women2. If this seems
like a lot, consider how many there used to be in the B.C. era. In Egypt,
parents could take a rebellious son to the elders, who would then stone him to
death. Women who were not virgins before marriages were often stoned or
burned alive. In Rome, crucifixation, drowning, beating to death, and burning
alive were methods of execution. Until the nineteenth century, there were
many public onlookers in such executions.
The many different methods for executing someone in the present day are the electric chair, lethal injection, the gas chamber, hangings, or firing squads (these are only American listings). Yet since 1967, most of these except lethal injection have almost ceased completely3. Utah is now the only state that has firing squads.
So why aren't women executed as often as men? For one reason, there are not nearly as many capital crimes committed by women as men, although there are a lot by women. "Capital punishment is about portraying people as devils, but women are usually seen as less threatening."4 Since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, courts have given out 5,569 death sentences; 112 to women. Of these 112, only one has been executed: Velma Barfield in 1984. Compare this with the three hundred and one men who have been executed since the Supreme Court act.
Most recently, the case of Karla Faye Tucker has taken up quite a lot of space in the news. Karla had killed two people with a pickaxe in nineteen eighty four. She was put on death row for fourteen years, and in that time, had claimed she found Jesus. She died by lethal injection on February third, nineteen ninety eight. Why such a long wait? If Karla were a male, would the Supreme Court have to wait so long to confirm an execution? Well, yes, actually. The courts want a long time to confirm the death sentence on a criminal so they can be precise and just. What probably happened to Karla was there were many pleas to free her and, since she was a woman, the court felt it should do something for her sake. For a while, no one had really paid a great deal of interest to the gender bias until this recent case.
Is this against the seventh amendment, the Right to a Fair Trial? Do more women escape execution than men? Presently, there are forty-seven women on death row. Only two have been executed since nineteen seventy six. Usually the court finds an excuse for the women, such as a mental illness or self- defense. Also, as I have said before, women are seen as less threatening. Many crimes committed by women on death row have been murders of husbands, families, and murders in robbery attempts. Perhaps one way or another, the court finds reasoning for some crimes, while with men, they are considered a threat no matter what crime they have committed.
Maria Barbella was born in Ferrandina, Italy. When she was seventeen, her
family immigrated to New York in hope to find a better society. They lived in
a section called Little Italy, not much different from their home back in
Italy. Maria worked in a local sweatshop. One day while walking to work, a
man had stopped to talk to her. His name was Domenico Cataldo. He had
proposed marriage to her minutes after they first met and Maria, being
desperate for a husband, accepted. Yet Domenico was very disloyal. He
constantly regretted to meet her parents or set a marriage date. He would
take advantage of Maria several times and after one morning, Maria had had it.
Domenico was at a local bar playing cards after just telling Maria he was
leaving for Italy without her. After pleading with him to get married, he
turned around and said his final words, "Only a pig can marry you!" At that,
Maria pulled out her razor and slit his throat, killing him.5
A short time later (after she had been put in jail), the trials started. Maria had, after a time, been charged with first-degree murder. The trials filled the headlines of newspapers and magazines, such as The Sun and The World. When the news reached Italy where Cora Slocomb was, she was in deep shock. "Another poor Italian immigrant at the mercy of the American courts," she exclaimed. "A woman does not kill lightly, it's not in her nature. It must certainly have been self-defense." she added.
All through this time, Maria was being held at a jailhouse nicknamed The Tombs. There was a woman, Mrs. Foster, who often came in to talk to the criminals and help make them feel better. Sort of like a therapist. She was named the Tombs Angel. Although she wished to remain anonymous, the trials of Maria Barbella (who she had developed a relationship with) had put her name all over the news. After Cora Slocomb had arrived in New York, she and Mrs. Foster had teamed up in order to save Maria. The court judges had not listened entirely to Maria's opinion and full story. So Cora and Mrs. Foster had gotten two new lawyers (whom Cora sought out personally) to defend Maria.
Maria told one reporter she only meant to wound Domenico, so the police standing by the bar would arrest them, and then they would make them get married. Unfortunately, she had slit his wound too deeply, and did not know that he died until the judge announced it in court. Because of reasons like this, the defenders of Maria had a very strong case to represent. They also agreed Domenico had been unfair. In the end, Maria Barbella would be saved from execution, and would save another woman's life from a fire. The first woman to die in the electric chair was Martha M. Place in 1899.
IV. My Personal Opinion
I cannot say I have much sympathy for women in this case. I believe that
both genders are equal, and should both deserve a fair trial. Although the
number of crimes is greater among men, I believe there should be no variables
in the court decision whether the person should live or die. Do I believe in
execution? I know if my son or daughter were killed by someone who was on
death row, I would want them dead for what they've done, no matter what.
I believe that it is good for the criminal to serve a certain number of years, but not before they die. If they are sentenced to die, I think they should be executed sooner rather than later, although it does take the court a while to decide. We Americans pay for people to stay in jail. Why pay a lot of money for someone who committed a deadly crime to stay in a bed and live and breathe? For one thing, it gives that person some time to pay for and realize what they have done. But I still think the person on death row should die shortly after because the crime is still new. If you wait a long time to kill someone, they are probably a changed person. Take Karla Faye Tucker, for example. She was held off for fourteen years. She recently claimed that she had found Jesus, and was a very different person than who she was when she committed the crime. It is sometimes hard to sentence death to someone who has changed in such a way.
Does the death penalty solve anything? Most judges say (after they have sentenced execution) that it teaches the American nation that the law is strong and it is doing its duty. They usually do not say the world will be a better place without the criminal living. Besides, they are locked up and cannot do any more harm. I believe the decision about whether to execute a woman has not changed much in the last few decades. There has been a bit more fair ratio of men to women since the eighteenth century, but we must remember before then there were far more executions anyway. I think society will continue its behavior in the gender bias because over the past thousand years, it still hasn't.