Lethal Legacy

Yates isn't dying to prove the equity of Harris County executions

Just the potential of executing Andrea Pia Yates sparked an international media frenzy not seen since the State of Texas offed Karla Faye Tucker in 1998. But in the midst of the heated arguments over capital punishment, one thing is certain: The death penalty for women is not equally administered across the state.

"The good news is, women in Harris County are being treated equally. The bad news is, women in Harris County are being treated equally," says one attorney who watched the Yates trial.

The American Civil Liberties Union cites evidence that the death penalty is unfair because it varies geographically, and Harris County serves as the poster child for that view. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 30 percent of all death row inmates come from Harris County. Texas now has seven women on death row (second only to California). Linda Anita Carty will soon join them when she is transferred from Harris County to the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville. Of the eight, four were sentenced in Harris County -- no gender bias here.

"Basically, there's Harris County, and then there's the rest of the state," says Annette Lamoreaux, the ACLU's East Texas regional director. Lamoreaux looks at the increasing number of women on death row -- 54 nationwide -- and doesn't see a trend of more violent women.

What she does see are more women jurors and lawyers. Even the Harris County D.A.'s appellate section is mostly women. "And women are more likely to convict other women." The Andrea Yates jury, which took less than four hours to return a guilty verdict in the drowning of three of her five children, included eight women among its 12 members.

However, the county's zeal for executions seemed absent in the strangely abbreviated punishment stage of the Yates trial. Prosecutors called no witnesses and didn't even urge jurors to return a death sentence. The panel was out less than an hour before finding that Yates should receive a life prison term.

Roe Wilson, an 18-year Harris County prosecutor, argues that the eight females who got death sentences show how equitably the law is carried out. The death penalty "certainly isn't being executed unfairly; there would be a lot more than eight women if it were," she says. "Women shouldn't get a free pass for murder."

Only four women are among the 152 Harris County inmates sent to death row, Wilson says. "What's that, like 2 percent?" (The Death Penalty Information Center sets the national percentage at 1.46.) Wilson doesn't believe the county is more aggressive in pursuing capital cases against women but does admit her office seeks death more than other Texas metropolitan areas. "For instance, Dallas County traditionally doesn't prosecute as heavy as we do." Nor does any other county, for that matter.

Professor Shelby Moore of the South Texas College of Law tries to explain local death row numbers by saying people expect the district attorney's office to protect them. "We have a lot of crime in Houston, violent crime."

But Lamoreaux claims that's a myth put out by prosecutors. 'The public has bought into that, that death sentences affect the crime rate." She notes the financial costs -- the Death Penalty Information Center estimates it is $1.5 million per prosecution. "If you look at the money spent on death penalty cases and put it into police and fire protection, that would lower crime."

Some survey findings challenge the notion that the D.A.'s zeal to prosecute death penalty cases is linked to public opinion in their jurisdictions. After Yates's conviction, a SurveyUSA poll conducted for KPRC-TV (Channel 2) showed that the biggest support for executing her came from Bexar County, which has yet to send a woman to death row. About 45 percent of the Bexar respondents called for capital punishment in that case.

"We don't seek the death penalty like they do in Harris," says Michael Bernard, first assistant D.A. for Bexar County. "Philosophically we just don't pursue it. We do more life sentences. Y'all could populate a small state" with Harris County death row inmates.

In 1984, Karla Faye Tucker became the first Harris County female sent to death row, and the first since Reconstruction to be executed by the state. Then came Pam Perillo, whose sentence was later commuted to life.

The likely candidate for the next execution of a woman is Frances Elaine Newton, sentenced in 1988 for killing her husband and two children for insurance money. She has now been there the longest of the inmates. Newton was joined in 1995 by Erica Sheppard, for the murder of a woman during a robbery. In 1999, Susan Basso went to death row for killing her husband. Linda Carty was sentenced in February for the kidnapping and murder of her neighbor, apparently so she could take the woman's newborn baby as her own.

The county had no death penalties against women for a seven-year period beginning in the late 1980s. Professor Moore sees that span as a time when women weren't being judged so harshly, although they were still committing crimes.

"Women were mad, but the men were bad," she says. But the recent rise in numbers has her and other scholars concerned.

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