Women on Death Row Are Rare, As Texas Execution Of Suzanne Basse Reminds Us

In 40 years, the United States has executed 13 women. At 6 p.m. Wednesday, Texas is set to execute the country's 14th: Suzanne Basso, a 59-year-old convicted murderer who lured a mentally-impaired man from New Jersey on the promise of marriage, and brutally killed him for the insurance payout. If everything goes as planned, Basso will become the 14th female to be put to death in America since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in this country. But since then, nearly 1,400 men have been executed: that means 99 men have been put to death in America for every woman handed the same fate. So, what's going on?

Well, let's take a look at the 13 women who have faced the death penalty. Seven of them murdered their spouse, children, or significant other. Women who commit violent crimes — and only one-tenth of murders in America are committed by females — are more statistically likely to kill someone close to them, whereas men are less likely to do so. According to a recent report about gender bias on death row, more than half of the women on death row at the moment were convicted of killing a family member.

Just two percent of death-row inmates are women, although 10 percent of murderers are female. There are a few obvious reasons for women's lack of presence on death row: Women typically commit less murders, less violent crimes, and less random crimes than men. And historically, female murderers were sent to mental institutions instead of jail cells or to death row — they were viewed as "ill," whereas men were seen as killers.

Courtesy of Death Penalty Info, here's a chart about the 13 women who have been executed.

The inmate scheduled to be executed today, Basso, is an exception when it comes to the pattern of females killing children or spouses. Though she persuaded her victim, mentally challenged 59-year-old Louis Musso, that she would marry him, Basso wasn't his wife when he died: instead, Basso lured Musso to Texas and took steps to make herself the beneficiary of Musso's health and life insurance policies, and then tortured and killed him.

When it comes to sentencing a murderer, there can be underlying and unconscious gender biases. In many states, juries — not judges — need to collectively agree to hand down the death penalty to a defendant. Judges have spent decades being trained to view crime objectively, but juries have not, and they've typically been more reluctant to hand the death penalty to a female murderer.

One recent study examined 1,200 female murder defendants in California, and concluded: "The present study confirms what earlier studies have shown: that the death penalty is imposed on women relatively infrequently, and that it is disproportionately imposed for the killing of women." In other words, men who kill women are more likely to be sentenced to death than the average female murderer would be.

Just two percent of death-row inmates are women, although 10 percent of murderers are female. There are a few obvious reasons for women's lack of presence on death row: Women typically commit less murders, less violent crimes, and less random crimes than men. And historically, female murderers were sent to mental institutions instead of jail cells or to death row — they were viewed as "ill," whereas men were seen as killers.

Another examination of data indicated that this is a bias that the justice system has faced for more than a century: of all of the people executed in America since the 1900s, only 0.6 percent were women. But there are a number of other reasons for this: Juries are more easily convinced that women are mentally ill; that a woman's murder of a partner is a crime of passion, rather than a calculated killing; or that there were mitigating factors. For example, when North Carolina's Susan Smith killed her two sons by driving their car into a lake, a jury sympathized with her abusive childhood and handed her a life sentence with parole.

Basso's trial was different. Her daughter said on the stand that she'd suffered abuse — both physical and mental — from her mother, and the D.A. called Basso's crime "heinous." Though Basso has presented symptoms of being mentally ill — fabricating her life story, talking like a little girl, claiming to suffer paralysis — the jury didn't sympathize, and neither did the public.

Interestingly, Basso's crime involved a series of elements more typical of male killers — torture; detachment; careful planning — and rather than seeing a fate like Susan Smith, Basso was sentenced to the most severe punishment the American justice system has to offer.