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4 women who were executed on death row

Aileen Wuornos smiling in an orange prison jumpsuit at the officer's station
Image: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 after a moratorium earlier that decade, 18 women have been executed in the United States. In this article, we look at just a handful of the cases which have ended in capital punishment.

1. Karla Faye Tucker

Death was a fate that few people seemed to want for Karla Faye Tucker. In fact, commentators from across the political and ideological divide, from social progressives to US televangelist Pat Robertson and even the Pope himself, called for her sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment because she was a reformed character who was now motivated to do good.

As one journalist put it in the year of her execution, ‘Karla Faye Tucker is the nicest woman on death row. She is so nice, in fact, and so well-liked by people who know her that it is virtually impossible to look at this attractive, sweet-natured, born-again Christian and imagine the gruesome crime to which she confessed in Houston, Texas.’

The crime in question was the double murder of acquaintance Jerry Dean and his friend Deborah Thornton, during a burglary of Jerry’s home. Tucker, then a drug-abusing sex worker, plunged a pickaxe into the victims and later claimed it gave her intense sexual pleasure to kill them both.

It was perhaps the grisly nature of the killings that ensured her sentence would never be commuted, despite all the support she received. In 1998, she became the first woman to be executed in Texas since 1863.

2. Aileen Wuornos

Perhaps the only female killer who ranks alongside the likes of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer in the annals of iconic infamy, Aileen Wuornos wasn’t just notorious for murdering a string of men on the highways of Florida. Her belligerent, swaggering hostility during public appearances also made her a feared and despised figure, eliciting none of the sympathy that Karla Faye Tucker had.

Much has been made of Wuornos’ deeply troubled life – her father was a convicted child rapist, her grandfather was an abusive tyrant, and she was a sex worker in her teens. Wuornos herself initially claimed her killings were carried out in self-defence against yet more abusive men. However, she later admitted the murders were ‘cold as ice’, that she was filled with hate, and that she’d do it all again if she could.

Her time on death row was turbulent, with Wuornos accusing prison staff of tainting her food and psychologically abusing her in the hope of making her commit suicide. She was executed in 2002, with her final words being among the most cryptic recorded in death row history:

‘I would just like to say I'm sailing with the rock, and I'll be back, like Independence Day, with Jesus. June 6, like the movie. Big mother ship and all, I'll be back, I'll be back.’

3. Teresa Lewis

In 2010, when Teresa Lewis became the first woman to be executed in Virginia since 1912, a greater than usual outcry was aroused for a few reasons. First, there were the details of the crime itself: the murders of her husband Julian and stepson Charles, which were not actually carried out by Lewis herself, but rather by two young men she had struck up a friendship with.

During her trial, Lewis was condemned as the ‘mastermind’ of the crime, leaving the door of the family trailer open so the men could come in and kill her family, thereby allowing her to claim her stepson’s life insurance money. However, many onlookers objected to the fact that the two gunmen were given life sentences while Lewis – who did not pull the trigger – was condemned to death.

Then there was the matter of her IQ, which was low enough to have her classified as having ‘borderline mental retardation’. Prominent figures, including crime novelist John Grisham, argued that one of the convicted men, not Lewis, was the true mastermind of the killings.

Despite the arguments in her favour, Teresa Lewis did not escape her death sentence, receiving a lethal injection following a final meal of fried chicken, sweet peas and apple pie.

4. Kimberly McCarthy

One summer’s day in 1997, Texas-based occupational therapist Kimberly McCarthy called on a neighbour, retired academic Dorothy Booth, to ‘borrow some sugar’. What should have been a mundane interaction took an abruptly horrifying turn when McCarthy took a knife to Dorothy, stabbing her multiple times and cutting off her finger to get at her diamond ring.

The vicious murder was carried out because McCarthy needed quick funds to score crack cocaine. Indeed, it transpired that she’d driven Booth’s Mercedes to a drug den and simply handed over the keys to a dealer in exchange for crack.

There were signs that, rather than being a one-off attack motivated by desperation, this may have actually been one of multiple murders committed by McCarthy. During a court hearing, DNA evidence was presented that allegedly connected her to the murders of two other elderly Texas women.

The fact that she was never tried for those crimes means that McCarthy does not have the distinction of being officially considered one of the few female serial killers of modern times. She was executed in 2013, the 500th person to be put to death by the state of Texas since the return of capital punishment in 1976.