by Mary Welek Atwell. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. 242pp. Paper. €25.30/£16.40/$32.95. ISBN: 9780820478838.

Reviewed by Christopher E. Smith, School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University. Email: smithc28 [at] msu.edu.


Those of us who teach about law in social science-oriented classes face the persistent challenge of keeping our students focused on the human beings whose lives are affected by statutes, judicial opinions, and the processes of the justice system. Students frequently ask us, “Whatever happened to Ms. X (or Mr. X) after the Supreme Court decided the case of State v. X?” Occasionally, an individual involved in a famous criminal justice case will receive continuing attention. Thus, for example, the details of Ernesto Miranda’s ultimate demise are widely known. By contrast, for most cases I must tell my students, “I don’t know,” with the explanatory comment that individuals provide the vehicles for judges’ examinations of legal rules, but the details of the lives and fates of those individuals are often lost to history.

The challenge of providing human context can be compounded when we move away from looking at the judicial postscript of individual consequences from legal processes and instead try to examine the precursory biographical details, demographic factors, and social contexts that may be associated with triggering specific events and systemic responses. Limited access to information impedes our ability to illuminate the human context of law by informing our students about the lives of individuals who are drawn into the justice system. These lives would seem to be especially important because they could show themes and patterns of behavior as well as demographic characteristics that are associated with the implementation of specific legal rules and processes. Thanks to Anthony Lewis, we know details about the life of Clarence Earl Gideon, and, thanks to the landmark cases series published by the University Press of Kansas, we are gradually learning more about the lives and events that shaped a small number of Supreme Court decisions. As for the individuals whose cases do not produce major Supreme Court decisions, it is even rarer to have access to the contextual underpinnings of their encounters with the justice system.

In WRETCHED SISTERS: EXAMINING GENDER AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT, Mary Welek Atwell performs a valuable service by supplying rich descriptions of the developments in a small set of cases. She provides details about the lives and social contexts of a small number of individuals whose cases ought to be viewed as “important,” despite not producing landmark appellate decisions. There is no doubt about what happened to these individuals as a result of decisions in the justice system: they were all executed for the crime of murder. Thus Atwell’s descriptions and analyses are most valuable in looking at [*178] the development, rather than just the consequences, of contexts, events, and decisions in the criminal justice process.

Atwell examines the lives and cases of all eleven women executed in the United States in the past thirty years. Because of the relatively small number of women sentenced to death, Atwell is able to provide detailed, side-by-side comparisons of the entire universe of cases within a particular subset of executed offenders. In so doing, she is able to illuminate patterns and raise questions concerning the pivotal factors and key decisions that move particular cases along the path toward death penalty verdicts and executions. Not surprisingly, Atwell’s descriptions and analyses highlight issues about the effects of discrimination, arbitrariness, media influence, affluence – or rather the lack thereof – effectiveness of counsel, and risk of error in the capital punishment system.

Only two of the women whose lives and cases are described by Atwell had received significant public attention. Karla Fay Tucker of Texas received media attention when appeals for clemency from religious figures around the world were turned aside by then-Texas Governor George W. Bush who later received criticism for belittling the basis for these appeals. Aileen Wuornos, the convicted serial killer in Florida, became familiar to many members of the public through Charlize Theron’s Academy Award-winning portrayal in the film Monster (2003). Tucker, Wuornos and two other women are each the focus of individual chapters. The remaining cases are presented in three thematic chapters based on shared elements in particular cases, such as the death penalty system in Oklahoma (three cases), “black widow” convicted husband-killers (2 cases), and “aggravating circumstances” cases for killing police officers or children (2 cases).

Atwell opens her book with a chapter “explor[ing] what feminist criminology theory offers to explain the links between victimization and deviance” (p.xii). This chapter provides a useful, albeit relatively brief, orientation to scholars’ examinations of criminal behavior by women as well as analyses of theories about the justice system’s differential treatment of men and women. As the later chapters of the book describe the lives and cases of the individual women who were ultimately executed, Atwell refers back to themes and issues raised in the first chapter to link case characteristics to gender-based justice issues that have drawn the attention of scholars.

WRETCHED SISTERS is potentially susceptible to criticism for Atwell’s decision to raise and highlight the foregoing issues without providing more extensive explanation and analysis of the existing literature in the relatively brief opening and concluding chapters. Similarly, some readers may wish that Atwell had analyzed each of the eleven cases more systematically in light of the criminology literature that provides the framework for analysis in the first chapter. However, Atwell’s decision to limit the extent of her literature-based analysis ultimately provides a significant benefit: she has produced a book that is both useful to scholars and accessible to students and the general public. Books aimed at an audience of scholars often move beyond the interest and grasp [*179] readers with less expertise. In WRETCHED SISTERS, the richness of Atwell’s descriptions and her illumination of factors underlying death penalty cases create a wonderful resource to help students recognize the events and decisions that produce inconsistency and potential unfairness in the application of capital punishment.

Although Atwell’s critical stance toward capital punishment is clear at the outset, her descriptions and analyses are not biased by evident sympathy for the offenders convicted of murder in these cases. Instead, her careful attention to detail and her identification of key factors help to reveal the impact of such factors as gender-based stereotyping by the news media, arbitrariness in case outcomes, and the impact of poverty and specific personal problems on the contexts that produce death sentences for women. Overall, WRETCHED SISTERS makes a valuable contribution to knowledge about capital punishment and gender-based outcomes of criminal justice processes by providing an analytical orientation for and rich descriptions of the human contexts from which death sentences arise.

Lewis, Anthony. 1989. GIDEON’S TRUMPET. New York: Vintage.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Christopher E. Smith.