Women on Death Row
From 1692-1693, the Salem Witch Trials, a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft, consumed much of colonial Massachusetts. Bridget Bishop was the first person to be sentenced and executed during the Salem Witch Trials. On June 10, 1662, she was hanged on Gallows Hill. During this period, 21 people were executed on the grounds of witchcraft; 14 of them were women.
As demonstrated by the Salem Witch Trials, women have been executed throughout our history; however, in 1865 Mary Surratt was the first woman to be executed by the United States Federal Government. Surratt, who owned a Washington, D.C. boarding house, was tried, convicted, and hanged for her supposed involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.
Since 1900, 52 women have been executed in the United States- with 12 of those occurring after the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. These women include:
Velma Barfield (October 29, 1932 – November 2, 1984)
After two marriages ended with the death of her husbands, Thomas Burke and Jennings Barfield, Velma Barfield began a relationship with Stuart Taylor. As she had done for many years, she forged checks on Taylor’s account to pay for her addiction to prescription drugs. Because she began to fear that he suspected her, she mixed an arsenic based rat poison into Taylor’s beer and tea. Taylor eventually grew ill and died a few days after hospitalization. Taylor’s autopsy showed that the cause of his death was arsenic poisoning; subsequently Velma was arrested.
After her arrest, the body of her former husband, Jennings Barfield, was exhumed and found to have traces of arsenic. Barfield denied that she had any involvement in his death. She did, however, confess to the murders of Lillian Bullard (her mother), Dollie Edwards (a relative of Stuart Taylor), and John Henry Lee (whom paid Barfield to be his caregiver/housekeeper). Despite her confessions, she was tried and convicted only for the murder of Stuart Taylor.
Velma Barfield, known as the “Death Row Granny”, was the first woman to be executed in the U.S. after the resumption of capital punishment in 1976, and the first woman to be executed in the U.S. in 22 years. In 1984, Barfield was put to death by lethal injection in North Carolina, six years after her arrest. She was also the first woman to be put to death by lethal injection.
Karla Faye Tucker (November 18, 1959 – February 3, 1998)
In 1983, Tucker and her boyfriend, Danny Garrett, broke into the apartment of Jerry Lynn Dean intending to steal his motorcycle. During the burglary, Garrett struck Dean numerous times in the back of the head with a hammer.
The blows to Dean’s head caused his breathing passages to fill with fluid, creating a “gurgling” sound. Tucker wanted to “stop him from making that noise” and attacked him with a pickaxe. Tucker, then, noticed a woman who had been hiding in the room. The woman was Jerry Dean’s companion, Deborah Thornton. Tucker proceeded to stab Thornton repeatedly with the pickaxe and then embedded the axe in her heart. Tucker plunged a pickax at least 20 times into the bodies of Dean and Thornton.
In September 1983, Tucker and Garrett were indicted and tried separately for the two murders; both were sentenced to death in 1984. Fourteen years after her trial, Karla Faye Tucker was put to death by lethal injection, becoming the first woman to be executed in Texas in 135 years (since The Civil War) and the first woman since 1984.
Judy Buenoano (April 4, 1943 – March 30, 1998)
In 1983, Buenoano’s fiancé John Gentry was injured when his car mysteriously exploded. During his recovery, police began to find several discrepancies in Buenoano’s background; further investigation revealed that Buenoano had been giving Gentry pills which contained arsenic. This led to the exhumations of her son, Michael Goodyear, her former husband, James Goodyear, and her ex-boyfriend, Bobby Joe Morris who had all died years before. It was determined that each man had been a victim of arsenic poisoning. Until the car bombing, Buenoano had not been investigated or even under suspicion for these deaths.
In 1984, Buenoano was convicted for the murder of Michael and the attempted murder of Gentry. In 1985 she was convicted of the murder of James Goodyear. She received a twelve-year sentence for the Gentry case, a life sentence for the Michael Goodyear case, and a death sentence for the James Goodyear case. She was also convicted of multiple counts of grand theft and multiple acts of arson as means to gain insurance money. She was suspected of several other deaths including a 1974 murder in Alabama and the 1980 death of her boyfriend, Gerald Dossett. Her involvement in these deaths was never proved, and by the time she was suspected, she was already on Florida’s death row.
Known as the “Black Widow”, her motive was believed to be greed – she collected a reported $240,000 in insurance money. Buenoano never admitted any of the killings. In 1998, at the age of 54, she became the first woman executed in Florida since 1848, and the third executed in the United States since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.
Aileen Carol Wuornos (February 29, 1956 – October 9, 2002)
Aileen Carol Wuornos, known as the “Damsel of Death”, was a prostitute who robbed and killed at least 6 men in Florida between 1989 and 1990. She claimed that the victims had raped or attempted to rape her and that she had shot them in self-defense. Wuornos’ defense team wanted her to plead guilty on six murder charges in exchange for six consecutive life sentences; however, the prosecution decided to only try her for the murder of her first victim, convicted rapist, Richard Mallory. They believed the murder of Richard Mallory was the strongest case against her and would warrant the death penalty.
By virtue of the ‘Williams Rule’ in Florida Law, the prosecution is allowed to present evidence from other cases if they demonstrate a criminal pattern. This was the case for the 1992 trial of Aileen Wuornos; the jurors were made aware of the other murders that Wuornos was suspected to be involved in. After less than two hours, the jury had found her guilty of first-degree murder and she was sentenced to death by electrocution. She pled no contest to the murders of the other 5 men and was sentenced to death in each case, bringing her to a total of six death sentences. On October 9th, 2002, Wuornos was executed by lethal injection, becoming the second women to be executed in Florida.
The Current Women of Death Row:
While only 12 women have been executed since the ban on the death penalty was lifted in 1976, as of January 2013, a reported 63 women were living on death row. According to an end-of-year report issued by the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center, Florida leads the U.S. in the number of inmates it sends to death row.
Florida’s death row houses 406 inmates, five of them female. The first one to find herself on Florida’s death row was Tiffany Cole. In 2007, Tiffany Cole was convicted, along with three men, of the kidnapping and first-degree murder of a Florida couple. The couple had been neighbors of Tiffany’s in South Carolina, and when they decided to move to Florida in 2005, Tiffany offered to buy their car. Tiffany and her boyfriend drove to Florida to get the car and stayed with the couple. After their initial visit, they returned to the home with two other men, asking if they could use the couple’s phone. They then forced them to give up their ATM information, and shoved the couple into the trunk of a car. They drove across the Georgia state line buried the couple alive. A jury convicted her of first-degree murder. She was given two death sentences for the murders and a sentence to life in prison for the kidnappings. She currently awaits execution.
There are 37 inmates on Kentucky’s death row; the sole woman is Virginia Caudill, who has been on death row since 2000. In 1998, Caudill and a friend went to the home of 73-year-old Lonetta White, the mother of Caudill’s ex-boyfriend, asking to borrow $20. They later returned to the home and beat the elderly woman to death with a hammer. They robbed the house, and then wrapped White’s body in a rug, placed her in the trunk of her own car, drove her to a rural area and set the car on fire. Virginia and her accomplice were both convicted of first degree murder, robbery, burglary, arson and evidence tampering. They were both sentenced to death.
There are 195 inmates on Alabama’s death row, four of which are women. One of these women is Christie Scott, who at 33 years old, has been on death row since 2009. In August 2008, a blaze broke out at Christie Scott’s home, killing her six year old, autistic son, Mason. Christie and her other son escaped the fire. Because Christie had purchased a $100,000 life insurance policy on Mason just 12 hours before his death, she was accused of his murder. Prosecutors also pointed out that she had been looking at real estate the night of the fire, and had removed a valuable wedding ring from her house before the fire. She was found guilty on three counts of capital murder for which the jury suggested a life sentence, but the judge sentenced her to death.
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