Norwich Professor Looks At Differences In Sentences For Men and Women Murderers

Aug 15, 2016

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Is there a gender bias when it comes to sentencing women convicted of murder as opposed to men? Norwich University professor Elizabeth Gurian studies this issue and recently got a grant from the American Association of University Women Fellowship for her work.

Professor Gurian spoke to VPR about her findings and how she handles doing this research.

Why research the conviction rates of female murders:

The idea is as a serial killer or a mass murder, someone who commits some kind of extreme form of violence, the assumption by researchers is once they're captured the book will be thrown at them. I was interested to see if there were gender differences if women who are actually processed through the criminal justice system even at the highest level of committing this type of violence were treated differently.

The differences in number of men and women who commit these crimes:

According to my sample which goes from 1900 to 2015 , we have about 340 male serial killers from around the world but only 71 female serial killers. Women in general commit less violent crime than men to begin with and then when you look at serial murder it's going to be a tiny fraction.

What the research says about sentencing rates:

Traditionally, women are more likely to be sentenced to life imprisonment for acts of serial murder whereas men are more likely to be sentenced to death and then actually executed. When you look at logistic regression you say it's roughly a 62 percent less likelihood that a woman will be sentenced to death than a man.

What's behind the more lenient sentencing:

I think the criminal justice system in America gets very confused when it comes to treating women for violent crime and you have common societal cultural constructs of women. They’re mothers, they're very domestic [and] they are meant to be respectable. If a woman violates those perceptions then you might look at her a little bit differently.

Aileen Wuornos [is] commonly reported as the first American female serial killer. Not true, but the movie Monster got a lot of attention. In real life Aileen Wuornos was a prostitute who killed her victims by shooting them and a gun is typically a very masculine form of murder.

"I think the criminal justice system in America gets very confused when it comes to treating women for violent crime and you have common societal cultural constructs of women....If a woman violates those perceptions then you might look at her a little bit differently." - Professor Elizabeth Gurian, Norwich University

Typically female serial killers are using poison or they're overmedicating their victims so a more hands off type of method and so [Wuornos] was sentenced to death and executed for her crimes.

Since 1976 we have over 1,400 people executed in the United States. Only 16 were women so that's less than 1 percent and these are the women who are basically considered the worst of the worst.

On the aims of this research:

The two kind of prevailing theories are chivalry justice and paternalism. [These are] the ideas that the criminal justice system either treats women like children or puts them on a pedestal and has to protect them.

All I’m trying to determine is empirically, using higher level statistics rather than anecdotal evidence, does that theory have weight or is it just a construct because of these couple of cases that hit the mass media in a big way.

Dealing with research on difficult topic:

It's definitely a topic I've always found fascinating, the study of human deviancy. We need people who can study it without being overly affected by it. That's not to say it’s not hard research. I mean you could never put me in a shark cage [but] I admire the people who study sharks. You find the light side, you watch the Olympics, you talk to friends and family, you go to the beach and then you know the research is always there.