Women On Death Row: A Scary, Scary Thing

§ November 12th, 2015 § Filed under Uncategorized § No Comments

womenondeathA clear double-Plexiglass window separates us, with little holes at mouth level to speak through. This is the first time we’ve met, though we’ve been corresponding for more than a year. As she brushes a strand of her long sandy-brown hair from her eyes, I notice that her arms are horribly scarred, and some of her fingers are missing.

“The fire happened when I was five years old,” she explains. “The house burnt to the ground. My mother and I were the only two they couldn’t get to. I tried to beat the fire off of her, and ended up with burns on my face, arms, hands, back, buttocks, and thighs. She died of smoke inhalation and severe burns. She was twenty-four.”

Speaking about her mother’s death recalls the grief Kelley feels about her own children. At the time of her incarceration, they were nine, seven, five, three, and eight months. Three now live with relatives, one with a friend, and the youngest was put up for adoption. “I’ve made some bad choices in my life. I’ll admit that. But I was a good mother. I always watched after my kids and provided for them.”

Kelley’s children still visit occasionally, but she believes they are “pulling away.” She tells me about the last visit, when her son put his hand up on the Plexiglass. After the family left, the imprint was still there–and she longed to touch even that. “No one has touched me in years.”

As of July 1, 2000, there were fifty-five women on death row in the United States, the largest group of women on death row at any time in U.S. history. No other “advanced” country, in time of peace, has had a greater number. Occasionally a case gets heavy publicity (such as when Texas executed Karla Faye Tucker in 1998). But by and large we know very little about these women whom criminologist Coramae Richey Mann has called “the most forgotten female offenders.”

Women represent about 1.5 percent of the more than 3,600 people on death row in the United States. So far, only five women have been executed, most recently Christina Riggs in Arkansas on May 2, 2000. But given today’s climate (with 671 executions since 1976, including more than 170 in the last two years) it is likely we will see more women executed soon.

Over the last four years, while working on a book about women on death row, I have come to know many of these forgotten women. I have become saturated with the despair and longing for truth most of them experience.

Their stories are often similar. In most cases, the crime that led them to death row was their first and only crime. Almost all of them had a male partner who was involved. Many had public defenders at their trials–and the few who were able to afford private lawyers have often had their stories sensationalized or used without their permission.

The prison system does everything possible to keep these women out of the public eye. And as these women age in isolation (Faye Copeland, on death row in Missouri, is now in her eighties), most have given up trying to set the record straight.

Like many other women on death row, Kelley is thinking of waiving her appeals. With no money, no hope, and eroding family connections, execution seems preferable to the prospect of years of anticipatory grief as one of the living dead.

Kelley was present when her husband committed the murder for which they were both convicted, but insists she did not do it. She originally confessed to the crime, out of panic and in hopes of protecting him. “I confessed, said I did it. Call it loyalty. Love. Spouse, family, friends–you go bad for them.”

The two were tried together, found guilty, and each was sentenced to death. “I was sentenced first,” Kelley remembers, “but it didn’t fully hit me at the time because I was focused on my husband. So when the judge asked if I had anything to say after he read my sentence, I said no.

“After my husband’s sentence was read, he tearfully told everyone how sorry he was. I kept waiting for him to say, `But, your honor, my wife had nothing to do with this.’ Of course, he never said that. Since that moment, my life has been a nightmare.”

A guard tells me it’s time to leave, so I ask if there is anything Kelley wants me to say about her. “Tell everyone I want music played at my execution– `Forever Young’ by Rod Stewart.”

She starts to sing to be sure I know the song she means. As she sings, my heart aches. I think of all the things that will remain forever young in her life: her mother, her children, and if she is executed now, at age twenty-seven, herself. Her voice is soft and lovely. For a few brief moments, before the guards cuff her again, she is somewhere else, dancing, free.

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