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Panel Shares Global Overview of Women Facing the Death Penalty

At least 800 women are currently on death rows around the world, but there has been scant research on this population. A new study by the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide seeks to change that, highlighting for the first time the stories and needs of these women, the intersectional discrimination they face before and during trial, and the reality of their lives on death row. On February 12 at the Law School, a panel convened by the Center and the Berger Legal Studies Program discussed the findings of this groundbreaking report, titled Judged for More than Her Crime: A Global Overview of Women Facing the Death Penalty.

The event also celebrated the launch of the Alice Project, an initiative of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, which combines research, advocacy, and legal representation for women facing the death penalty to illuminate their unique challenges and draw connections between the causes and consequences of the wrongs they suffer.

Moderated by Sandra Babcock, clinical professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Center, the panel included Delphine Lourtau, executive director of the Center; Elizabeth Brundige, the Jack G. Clarke Executive Director of International and Comparative Legal Studies and founder of the Global Gender Justice Clinic; and appellate and post-conviction lawyer John Carlson, who is representing one of the women featured as a case study in the report.

In introducing the panel, Babcock noted that the Alice Project is named in honor of Alice Nungu, a Malawian woman who languished for over 12 years on death row after killing her abusive husband in self-defense. With the help of the Center, the gravely ill Nungu won release in 2015 and spent the last weeks of her life in her home village.

Lourtau discussed the main findings of Judged for More than Her Crime, among them the fact that, in capital proceedings, women who deviate from gender norms are more likely to be sentenced to death. She added that, “in understanding the categories of offenses for which women receive death sentences, we found narratives of vulnerability stemming from gender-based inequality that counterbalance the court’s narratives of evildoing based on gender transgression.”

She also touched on how harsh and debasing death row conditions are exacerbated for women by, for instance, a lack of access to appropriate health care. Some women endure death row while pregnant or caring for young children; some have even given birth alone in prison.

Brundige explored the report’s contributions to broader research on women’s incarceration. For one thing, she noted, “this report is a reminder that… we have to be really careful not to force women to fit themselves into a narrow box of victimhood; we also need to be careful not to reinforce stereotypes that exclude women who don’t conform to certain gender norms from dignity and legal protection.” She also commended the Alice Project for bringing together perspectives from gender justice, human rights, and capital defense work, highlighting the need for “new strategies and for new alliances.”

Carlson followed with an overview of the case of his client, Brenda Andrew, who was sentenced to death in Oklahoma for the murder of her estranged husband. Carlson explained how the prosecution sought to convince the jury that Andrew was “evil in a uniquely feminine way”—specifically, by portraying her as promiscuous and sexually aggressive. Among women on death row, the wealthy, college-educated Andrew is an outlier, but her case speaks to elements of gender bias that affect women in capital cases worldwide.

The panel concluded with a Q&A that touched on issues including access to representation, the role of religion, and the power of storytelling in advocacy.

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