Lethal Legacy

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.

Michelle Oberman, a law professor at DePaul University and author of Mothers Who Kill Their Children, followed the Yates trial closely. "I think judges and juries are being harsher," she says. "What we see is a need to demonize the woman, as with Yates, to make her seem less human, so we can feel safer."

But the ACLU's Lamoreaux is quicker to blame state laws and aggressive Harris County prosecutors. "It's not the jury; once they are impaneled, they have to follow the law." She notes that the D.A. has complete discretion on whether to file capital charges. "You know why Dallas County doesn't pursue those cases? It's the money," she says. "In Texas, they're even more expensive because of our voir dire," or jury selection process.

Jury selection takes significantly longer in capital cases, because the state requires that prospective jurors be questioned individually rather than in groups. While that adds enormously to the expenses of trying a case, it also makes for juries that are more prosecution-oriented. That's because jurors must swear that they are able to return a death penalty verdict if they feel it is warranted -- opponents of capital punishment are stricken from juries.

Lamoreaux says other Texas counties could take advantage of such juries and gain more death sentences, but only Harris County chooses to do that.

The ACLU attorney also contends that the court-appointed-attorney system contributes to the capital conviction rate. "It's really because we don't have a public defender system," Lamoreaux says. "Frankly, judges don't look kindly on appointed attorneys who aggressively defend these cases." She argues that if Yates attorney George Parnham had been appointed to the case, he would never get another appointment again. "I mean, all that money on expert witnesses and a three-week trial?"

However, Parnham was originally appointed to represent Linda Carty. He got out of that case to defend Yates.

District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal inherited the hard-line capital murder approach from his predecessor of 21 years, Johnny Holmes. Rosenthal, a prosecutor for 26 years, campaigned on continuing Holmes's legacy -- and is not impressed by all the hoopla over the death penalty stats. Nor is he taken aback by the number of women his office is sending to death row.

"I'm hardly surprised by anything anymore," Rosenthal says. "I just wish Harris County citizens would quit killing each other."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >