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.

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.

“Oklahoma has had 97 executions (since 1976). But for three of them to be women in the modern era, that's 3 percent. Nationally, it's less than 1 percent,” he said.

Oklahoma inmates

Jerry Massie, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, said Oklahoma is No. 1 in the nation for the number of women incarcerated on a per-capita basis. He said the state has about 2,600 female offenders.

Of that number, 122 women are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole and 53 are serving life without the possibility of parole, Massie said.

At the time Doss was convicted of murdering several relatives, only seven women were serving life terms at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

Oklahoma currently has one woman on death row — Brenda Andrew — who was sentenced to die for the Nov. 20, 2001, fatal shooting of her husband, Oklahoma City ad executive Rob Andrew.

Convincing a jury

Wanda Jean Allen, a black woman convicted of killing her lesbian lover in 1988, was the first woman executed by lethal injection in Oklahoma. It was January 2001.

She was the first woman put to death in the state since 1903, four years before statehood.

Oklahoma County Assistant District Attorney Sandra Elliott, the prosecutor on the case, said she sought the death penalty because Allen had a prior assault and manslaughter case.

Throughout her 27 years with the district attorney's office, Elliott has handled many death penalty cases for men but only one for a woman.

Dieter said he thinks jurors sometimes give women the death penalty if they can't relate to her or the crime she committed. Some jurors might see women as victims, he said.

Elliott disagreed, saying the jury's decision is often based on the nature of the offense and the defendant's criminal history.

“It's hard to seek the death penalty against anybody. The vast majority of citizens here don't want to kill anybody,” Elliott said. “If you're like the average person, it's difficult to ask anyone to do that job.

“When Wanda Jean was executed, I lit a candle and said a prayer for her.”

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