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CAPITAL PUNISHMENT : DEATH ROW GENDER GAP SPEAKS TO WOMEN AND CRIME.

Byline: Rita Henley Jensen

IN ``Last Dance,'' Sharon Stone - the '90s symbol of Hollywood moviestar glamor - plays a decidedly non-glamorous role.

Her character, Cindy Liggett, has been on Death Row for 12 years awaiting execution by lethal injection.

Naturally, Hollywood had to turn it into a love story. As the Touchstone Pictures press-release blurb says: ``As they (Cindy and her lawyer Rick) learn to trust each other, they can't help but acknowledge the love that has grown between them.''

In a far less romantic situation than Stone's character, though, are the many real-life women on real-life death rows across the nation.

Today 46 women are among the 3,046 prisoners in the United States condemned to die, including seven in California.

And some criminal-justice experts say if the death penalty were gender-neutral, that gruesome number would be higher.

The nation has witnessed only one execution of a woman since the Supreme Court ushered in the current era of executions in 1974.

Yet as the sheer number of men executed - 319 since 1977 - continues to mount, the call for a gender-neutral death-row admissions policy is becoming louder and more strident. Indeed one out of eight persons arrested for murder is female - yet 49 out of 50 death sentences are imposed on men.

In real life, this issue came up briefly when Susan Smith of South Carolina was on trial for murdering her two sons. She was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Critics said Smith should fry for her crimes because women have eluded the death chamber only because of their sex - even though parents rarely get the chair when their victims are their own children. Others argued she should be spared because, you guessed it, she is female.

The uproar came back in force in the Guinevere Garcia case in Illinois. In the midst of national press coverage and political pressure Gov. Jim Edgar pardoned her in January.

Some columnists - both conservatives such as Eric Felten in the Wall Street Journal and liberals like Richard Roeper in the Chicago Sun-Times - challenged Edgar for stopping Garcia's execution. True Garcia made it known she preferred to die but, it was also claimed, she got clemency only because she was female.

The issue is likely to continue to plague us as anti-death penalty advocates plead for mercy on behalf of the women now facing capital punishment.

A leading specialist on women on death row, Professor Elizabeth Rapaport of the University of New Mexico, throws up her hands at gender-based comparisons.

``Anybody can take any case and make whatever point they want to,'' she says. ``Whether someone receives a death sentence depends on the quality of the defense, the prosecutor and the jury. It's random.''

She insists that in all her research she has not found that women who commit violent crimes receive sentences less harsh than men get.

There are reasons why death-sentence rates for women and men cannot be compared, says Sue Osthoff, an attorney for the Philadelphia-based National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women.

Women who murder intimates often do so during an ongoing confrontation with an abusive partner. When men kill wives or lovers the victims tend to be women the murderers believe are having sexual relations with other men or who are threatening to leave them.

In addition, Osthoff says many of the women on death row are there for the murder of a spouse or lover - six of the women hired someone else to do it - while about 90 percent of the men on death row are there for the murder of strangers or acquaintances, often done in the course of committing another felony. Two very different types of acts.

In fact, those who are anxious for women to receive the ultimate in equal treatment under the law should keep their eyes on Texas, the execution capital of the country.

In addition to the widely publicized case of Bette Lou Beets, who murdered her husband in 1983, the state has five other women facing the death penalty.

Two, Pamela Lynn Perillo and Karla Faye Tucker, could be scheduled to die soon. Both joined their boyfriends in horrific murders of strangers.

Even if, for some unexpected reason, appeals on their behalf to the courts or public conscience succeed, there are sufficient women on death rows across the country to be sure a woman is going to fry soon.

Maybe in a backhanded way, ``Last Dance'' will focus attention on a problem that's only going to get larger.

WOMEN ON DEATH ROW

Here are the women on California's death row - the prisoners' names, age and a brief description of the crime:

Maria del Rosio Alfaro, 23, burglary, robbery and murder of a 9-year-old in 1990.

Celeste Simons Carrington, two 1992 murders during burglaries.

Cynthia Coffman, murder of adult female in 1986.

Kerry Lynn Dalton, murder of adult female in 1988.

Maureen McDermott, 48, murder of adult male in 1985.

Mary Ellen Samuels, 46, hired killer of husband in 1988 and murdered hired killer in 1989.

Catherine Thompson, 47, hired killer of her husband in 1990.

MEMO: Rita Henley Jensen is an Alicia Patterson Fellow in legal journalism.

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Title Annotation:VIEWPOINT
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 28, 1996
Words:866
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