Why Don't We Hear More About Wrongfully Convicted Women?

Steven Avery is in the news again, but what about the countless wrongfully convicted women who don't get media attention?
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Publish date:
August 11, 2016
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sexism, prison, Making A Murderer

Stories of wrongful convictions have always captured the interest of the public. This narrative has been especially mainstream in the past few years. The hit podcast Serial introduced the country to the case of Adnan Syed, who was a teenager when the police arrested him for a murder he claims he did not commit. The nation became obsessed with the case, an obsession that has spawned multiple podcasts, infinitely long threads on Reddit, and a book, which is destined to be a bestseller. The spin-off podcast Undisclosed broke down all the evidence presented at trial and made a fairly convincing case that the police had targeted Syed and refused to explore other leads. Syed was recently granted a new trial based on new information that disproves the cellphone evidence police used to make their case.

A Netflix documentary released in 2015 entitled Making a Murderer made the conviction of Steven Avery a national sensation. Millions binge-watched the episodes, which chronicled how small-town police who were biased against Avery built their whole case around convicting him, regardless of the evidence. Just yesterday, Avery accused his defense lawyers of not doing their job, hinting that he may hinge his appeal on an ineffective assistance of counsel argument.

Both of these cases brought the problem of wrongful convictions to the forefront of the national conversation, which is necessary considering that 149 innocent people were exonerated last year. The scale of the problem of wrongful convictions is hard to quantify because there are so few resources to investigate claims of innocence. Local chapters of the nationwide organization The Innocence Project investigate cases as they can, but there are only so many they can handle. This means an alarming number of potentially wrongful convictions go un-investigated and innocent people remain behind bars.

Unfortunately, this is particularly true for wrongfully convicted women. Since 1989, only 148 women have been exonerated, which is fewer than the total number of exonerations in 2015 alone. One of the main reasons for this is that women are often convicted of crimes that do not involve DNA evidence. Wrongfully convicted women are most often convicted of killing someone who was in their care: a child, a spouse, or an aging family member. In these cases, the alleged crime was often committed in the home, which was covered with the woman's fingerprints and DNA to begin with, so the forensic evidence would provide little help in her exoneration. DNA evidence has helped exonerate about 25 percent of all male exonerees, but only about 7 percent of women exonerees.

Studies of the cases of exonerated women also uncovered the alarming fact that in 67 percent of the cases, no crime had occurred. The deaths the women were convicted for were actually accidents. Since the deaths were accidental there was no forensic evidence which could be used to exonerate the women. In the cases where a crime actually had occurred, the perpetrators had left no forensic evidence, and the woman became the prime suspect due to her proximity to the victim.

The Northwestern School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions started the Women's Project as a way to examine the specific issues that made women's wrongful convictions unique. They have compiled stories of multiple exonerated women, and the common thread in almost all of the cases is sexism. Since so many of the cases lack forensic evidence, the prosecutors are required to create a narrative of the crime that makes the accused woman look guilty. Many of these narratives rely heavily on sexism.

When women are accused of killing their children, prosecutors will spend much of their time portraying the accused as a "bad mother." In the court of public opinion, being a "bad mother" is one of the worst crimes a woman can commit. Despite how much public opinion has changed about the role of women in society, women are still expected to be good mothers above everything else. When a prosecutor can convince a jury that a woman was a "bad mother," they are almost sure to get a conviction even if there is no evidence to back up their claims.

This was how Julie Rea Harper ended up in jail for the murder of her son. Harper gave the police a detailed account of a man breaking into her house, murdering her son, and fighting with her, but the police didn't believe her. They put her ex-husband on the stand, who testified that Harper was a bad mom and would be willing to murder their son to get back at him. He also lied on the stand and said that Harper had wanted an abortion, and claimed that this meant she'd be willing to murder her child because she never wanted him in the first place. This portrayal of Harper as a revenge-hungry woman who never wanted to be a mother landed her in jail even though the testimony from her ex-husband was biased and untrue. Harper was not released until a serial killer confessed to the murder years later.

In many cases, the jury is already willing to convict the mother simply because she has been accused and because of her proximity to the victim. When the jury is told that the mother was the last person seen with the child before they died, and that there is no evidence suggesting another perpetrator, the jurors jump to the conclusion that the mother killed their child. The idea that a mother would harm her child is so abhorrent to the people on the jury that their knee-jerk reaction is to punish the mother.

Take the case of Kristine Bunch. She was alone in her house with her son when a fire started. She told investigators she tried to save her son, but she could only get out in time to save herself. To investigators, Bunch looked guilty simply for making it out alive when her son did not. Then came the results of the arson investigation. A state arson investigator claimed that accelerant had been used to start the fire, indicating that it was not accidental. Bunch was convicted of murdering her son based on this evidence. When the case was reexamined years later, new science confirmed that no accelerant was used and that the fire was accidental. Further investigation suggested the original arson investigation results had been fabricated in order to convict Bunch. Her proximity to the crime alone made her guilty in the minds of the investigators, so the evidence was doctored to create a narrative that made Bunch sound guilty to the jurors.

In the case of Nicole Harris, the accidental death of her son resulted in her murder conviction because police coerced her to confess. Because of her proximity to her son when he died, the police started the investigation convinced of Harris' guilt. The detectives interrogating Harris used her guilt over her son dying while she was home to convince her that she had committed the murder. They taped her confession but conveniently did not tape the hours of interrogation leading up to the confession. Though the medical examiner had already ruled the death accidental, he changed his ruling after Harris' confession. Harris almost immediately recanted saying the detectives had bullied her into confessing, but the damage was already done. She spent eight years in jail before being released in 2013.

Both these cases demonstrate systemic sexism in the criminal justice process. The police and other investigators decided that these mothers were murderers simply because they were home when their children died. They were unwilling to pursue the possibility of accidental death because it was easy to blame the mothers and make a case against them. Prosecutors then played on the jurors' expectations of mothers to bias them against the accused women, which resulted in their convictions.

Sexist narratives were also central in cases where women were convicted of murdering spouses or lovers. In these cases, the woman's sexual behavior was used as a way to convince the jury that she was guilty. This is what happened to Cynthia Summer, who was convicted of killing her husband. The prosecutor presented evidence that shortly after her husband's death, Cynthia "had obtained breast augmentation, entered a wet T-shirt contest, and engaged in sex with several men." The prosecutor used this evidence to portray Cynthia as a slut who just wanted her husband out of the way so she could sleep around. The jury bought the narrative and convicted her even though the toxicology report suggested that her husband hadn't even been poisoned.

These cases provide disturbing examples of how sexism permeates the criminal justice system. In cases where no forensic evidence is available or no crime was even committed, prosecutors craft narratives about bad moms, careless moms, and slutty wives to convince juries to convict innocent women. Often, these women remain behind bars their entire lives because there is no evidence to prove they did not commit the crimes. They are tried, convicted, and punished for simply being women.