Death penalty for female offenders

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JANUARY 1, 1973, THROUGH JUNE 30, 2009

Issue #64

Victor Streib

Professor of Law

Ohio Northern University

Latest changes entered on June 30, 2009.

Victor L. Streib


Beginning with the first legislative enactments of modern death penalty statutes in 1973, we now have over thirty-six years of death sentences being imposed in American jurisdictions. This post-1973 time period is referred to as the current era of the death penalty, operating under quite different laws and procedures than did earlier death penalty eras. This report, now available primarily in electronic format, supersedes the written report, "Capital Punishment of Female Offenders," generated quarterly by this author from 1984 through early 1998. The burdens of constant corrections and updates, coupled with the difficulties of worldwide distribution of regular issues of a printed, hard copy report, led us to this electronic format.
The data herein are updated as often and as quickly as possible, with the last date of entry noted on the cover page. However, given the difficulty of gathering complete information from all jurisdictions and as soon as cases develop, these reports may under-report the number of female offenders under death sentences. The subjects of these reports are female offenders sentenced to death. They are not all referred to as women, since some were as young as age fifteen at the time of their crimes. However, no such very young female offenders are currently under death sentences.

One final source of confusion and occasional inaccuracy is the difference between being legally under a sentence of death and being physically on a prison’s death row. These reports chronicle the exact dates of imposition and reversal or removal of the death sentence by a court or executive officer. Therefore, the list of female offenders currently under death sentences excludes those for whom the sentence has been legally reversed or removed even if the case is still being reviewed or reconsidered. However, it is not uncommon for such a person to continue to be housed on the prison’s death row even though no longer legally under a death sentence. The list also includes those female offenders under death sentences who are housed temporarily in local jails or prisons rather than the jurisdiction’s death row prison. Such temporary housing typically occurs (1) when the individual has just been sentenced to death but not yet transported to the death row prison or (2) when she is serving as a witness or defendant in another trial or proceeding and must be located nearby. In either case, they are under sentences of death but are not physically on death row and often are not even known or listed by the prison officials.
It is left to other documents and to other organizations to argue about the pros and cons of this practice, with the hope that these data will inform those arguments and deliberations. Therefore, these reports take no position on the legality, the wisdom, or the morality of the death penalty for female offenders. The author of these reports has been involved with this issue for twenty-five years as a researcher and as an attorney. References to some of those involvements can be found in Appendix C to this report. Please feel free to contact the author if further information is desired.


  1. From 1973 through mid-2009, the leading states for sentencing women to death are Texas with nineteen, California with eighteen, Florida with seventeen, and North Carolina with sixteen.

  1. As of mid-2009, California has fifteen women on death row, and Texas has ten.

  1. Currently on death row are thirteen women who killed their husbands or boyfriends, and another eleven women who killed their children. Two other women killed both their husbands and their children. These twenty-six women account for almost half of the fifty-three women now on death row.

  1. The most recent execution of a female offender was that of Frances Newton in Texas on September 14, 2005.

  1. The most unusual recent development is the rebirth of federal death penalties for women. No women had received federal death sentences in the entire current era (beginning in 1973) until one such sentence was imposed in late 2005 and another in early 2008.


  1. Women account for about one in ten (10.0%) murder arrests;

  1. Women account for only one in forty-nine (2.0%) death sentences imposed at the trial level;

  1. Women account for only one in sixty-two (1.6%) persons presently on death row; and

  1. Women account for only one in one hundred and six (0.9%) persons actually executed in this modern era.


  1. A total of 165 death sentences have been imposed upon female offenders from 1973 through mid-2009. Table 1 below provides these data by individual year.

  1. These 165 death sentences for female offenders constitute just 2% of all death sentences during this time period.

  1. The annual death sentencing rate for female offenders during the last decade has averaged four per year.

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