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Women rarely given death penalty in Oklahoma for crimes

Officials talk about the history of the death penalty in Oklahoma and famous cases involving the execution of women. Oklahoma is tied with Texas for the most female executions in the nation.
by Tiffany Gibson Modified: March 5, 2012 at 3:03 pm •  Published: March 5, 2012

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After two years in prison, Nannie Doss told reporters she was bored with life behind bars.

“I wish the authorities here would let me be tried in Kansas or North Carolina,” she said. “Maybe they would give me the electric chair.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Oklahoma never executed a woman in the electric chair. The state did make headlines in 2001, however, when it executed three women by lethal injection in the same year.

Would Doss — who confessed to poisoning four of her five husbands in 1954 — or other women convicted of murder decades ago still receive life sentences today?

“Experts have been hesitant to say for sure whether there's gender bias going on, but certainly women are rarely executed,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Center.

Cheerful widow

Doss left a trail of murders throughout the South between the 1920s and 1954. Her proclaimed victims included four husbands, her mother, her sister and a mother-in-law. Her first husband escaped a poisoning attempt. Always cheerful, Doss was described by the media as the “smiling granny” and “lonely hearts widow.”

She confessed to the murders after she was arrested in Tulsa in connection with the arsenic death of her fifth mate, Samuel Doss.

Nannie Doss pleaded guilty to a murder charge and was sentenced to life instead of death because a judge thought she was insane, even though medical evaluations proved otherwise.

Mental illnesses

Dieter said women who committed these types of crimes in the early 20th century might have been dealt with outside of the criminal justice system and thought to be mentally unstable.

“Mothers did kill children and husbands, but they were dealt with sort of outside. It was unexpected. It was dealt with quietly, perhaps, through a mental facility,” he said. “Because it was so rare, that was something that was supposed to teach a lesson to deter other crimes.”

To receive the death penalty, Dieter said, women often must commit some type of aggravated offense. Women are more likely to kill relatives or spouses, but less likely to commit heinous crimes, he said.

About 10 percent of murders are committed by women, but only 2 percent of death sentences are given to women. Even then there's a chance of overturning the sentence, so even fewer women are executed, Dieter said.

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by Tiffany Gibson
News Online Editor
Tiffany Gibson has worked for the Oklahoman since August 2011 and is a member of the digital news team. In addition to writing and web editing, she also creates multimedia features for the website and maintains social media accounts. A Tennessee...
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Women and the death penalty

Death sentences and executions of female offenders are rare when compared to male offenders. Women are more likely to be dropped out of the capital punishment system the further the case progresses. Women account for:

about 1 in 10 (10%) murder arrests.

only 1 in 50 (2.1%) death sentences imposed at the trial level.

only 1 in 67 (1.8%) persons on death row.

only 1 in 100 (. 9%) persons actually executed in the modern era.

Source: Death Penalty Information Center

Death Penalty Information

The death penalty law was enacted in 1977 by the state Legislature. The method is by lethal injection. The original death penalty law in Oklahoma called for executions to be carried out by electrocution. That law was ruled unconstitutional as it was administered when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

Oklahoma executed 176 men and three women between 1915 and 2011 at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Eighty-two were executed by electrocution, one by hanging (a federal prisoner) and 96 by lethal injection. The last execution by electrocution took place in 1966. The first execution by lethal injection in Oklahoma occurred on Sept. 10, 1990, when Charles Troy Coleman, who was convicted in 1979 of first-degree murder in Muskogee County, was executed.

Execution Process

Drugs used for lethal injection:

Sodium Thiopental or Pentobarbital — causes unconsciousness

Vecuronium Bromide — stops respiration

Potassium Chloride — stops heart

Two intravenous lines are inserted, one in each arm. The drugs are injected by hand-held syringes simultaneously into the two lines. The sequence is in the order listed above. Three executioners take part with each one injecting one of the drugs.

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