Pin It
Submit to Reddit

Why do women keep dodging death row? 

Nellie Green Freeman often smiled, police officers told the court, as she nonchalantly told the tale of how she slit her husband's throat with a razor.

Freeman, 19, cut him so violently that his head was almost completely decapitated "except for a small portion of skin and flesh in the back of the neck."

She did this, she explained, because he said he didn't love her and planned to leave her.

"If other wives would give their husbands the same dose I gave mine, they'd have less trouble," she told stunned police officers.

So began what The Charlotte Observer described as the biggest show trial the county had ever seen.

It was 1926, and Nellie, like most white women who killed violently back then, quickly became a star. There was a commonly held belief at the time that executing women was barbaric, no matter how bloody the crimes they committed. The smaller, younger and more attractive the woman, the greater the public sentiment in her favor would be.

"Public sentiment was not aroused in indignation, but rather took the turn of a sympathetic wonder at what the girl would do in an effort to relieve the situation," a Charlotte News reporter wrote. "None condoned her act as justified. But, her petite frame and audacity stood her in good stead, as far as the man on the street was concerned."

At the time, it was believed that women's minds were weak and often underdeveloped, predisposing them to fits of insanity for which they couldn't be held responsible. This clearly wasn't lost on Nellie, whose first words to police officers at the scene were: "I'm 19 years old and I weigh less than 90 pounds."

By the time her trial began, Nellie had become the modern equivalent of a rock star. The News described her as "the crowd's diminutive idol," and even details of her fashion choices were scrutinized in the papers.

During jury selection, when a potential juror answered that he didn't believe in capital punishment for women, the crowd murmured approvingly. The crowd jeered those who thought otherwise.

Nellie's psychopathic coldness, which was taken as evidence of her feeble mind, actually helped her. While most of the courtroom, including several jurors, teared up as Alton Freeman's anguished mother described the agony of her son dying in her arms, Nellie read a newspaper and occasionally powdered her face.

After two days of deliberation in which three jurors held out for a manslaughter charge, the jury, after studying Bible teachings about forgiveness, came back with a unanimous verdict of "not guilty by reason of insanity."

Sound familiar? I wonder if similar sentiments drove the not-guilty verdict last week in the Casey Anthony murder trial in Florida.

There are currently 398 people on Florida's death row; only three of whom are women. That's because while women commit about 13 percent of murders, they get just 1.4 percent of death sentences. Juries simply don't like to sentence them to death.

North Carolina wouldn't execute a woman until 1943, when it sent Rosanna Phillips, who was black, to the gas chamber for murder. The state executed its first white woman, Velma Barfield, in 1984.

In North Carolina, just four out of 158 inmates on death row are women.

You can see why the odds were in Anthony's favor before her trial for killing daughter Caylee ever began. After days of saying the prosecution didn't prove its case, juror Jennifer Ford may have finally admitted the real reason the jury found Anthony not guilty.

"Do you think if prosecutors weren't seeking the death penalty it would have affected how you deliberated this case?" ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked her.

"Absolutely," Ford said. "I think it was even mentioned a few times if they charged her with other things, we probably could have convicted or got a guilty sentence but not for death, not for first degree."

But prosecutors did charge her with other things, including manslaughter, which didn't carry the death penalty. Is it possible even the mere pursuit of the death penalty against a woman who looked as young and helpless as Anthony annoyed flaky jurors enough that they lashed out with a not-guilty verdict?

Pin It
Submit to Reddit

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Creative Loafing encourages a healthy discussion on its website from all sides of the conversation, but we reserve the right to delete any comments that detract from that. Violence, racism and personal attacks that go beyond the pale will not be tolerated.

Search Events
items in Creative Loafing Charlotte More in Creative Loafing Charlotte pool

© 2017 Womack Newspapers, Inc.
Powered by Foundation