Gender Bias in the Courtroom

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Although there have been many changes in our society concerning discrimination against one's gender, there is still one area that has yet to change. If we take a man and a woman convicted of the same crime, it is very likely that the man will receive a more callous sentence. Since the beginning of the colonial era, 20,000 people have been lawfully executed in America, but only 400 of them have been women, including 27 who were found guilty of witchcraft. In the 23 years since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, 5,569 total death sentences have been given out by courts, 112 to women. Of these 112, only one has been executed, compared with 301 men. Leigh Beinen, a Northwestern University law professor who studies the gender bias in capital cases nationwide, thinks the reason so few women face execution has to do with the symbolism that's central to the death penalty. She said, "Capital punishment is about portraying people as devils, but women are usually seen as less threatening." In 1977, Guinevere Garcia murdered her daughter, and later received a 10-year sentence for the killing. Four months after her release, she killed her husband during a robbery attempt. This time, the court imposed the death penalty. Garcia had refused to appeal her sentence, and opposed efforts to save her. Death penalty opponents turned to Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar who as a state legislator, voted to restore the death penalty. The facts of the case swayed his opinion and just hours before the scheduled execution, Edgar commuted Garcia's sentence to life without parole, his first such act in more than five years in office.

Juries and judges tend to find more justifying factors in capital cases involving women than in ones involving men, Beinen explains. Women who kill abusive spouses, for example, are often seen as victims. Women are more likely to kill someone they know without any premeditation, which is considered less serious than killing a stranger, while...
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