2001: Lois Nadean Smith

On this date in 2001, Lois Nadean Smith was executed by lethal injection in Oklahoma for the murder of her son’s ex-girlfriend.

By the standards of the 1,099 executions in the “modern” death penalty in America — those since the 1972 Furman v. Georgia Supreme Court decision — very little especially distinguished Smith‘s case.

Sentenced some 19 years before her death, she had committed a single horrifying and rather tawdry kidnapping and murder. Her guilt was in no question, although she stood trial along with her son — who received a life sentence — and would later argue on appeal that their lawyer had pursued a defense intentionally shifting blame onto her in order to save him.

As a woman, though, Smith was inherently an oddity. This date completed a remarkable year in which Oklahoma, having not put any woman to death since 1903, emptied its women’s death row with three such executions.

Including those three, only eleven women have been executed in the United States since Furman — or, indeed, since the Kennedy administration. There had been no calendar year in which three women were executed in the entire country since 1953 … and no single state had executed three women in one year since Virginia when the women in question were property.*

According to the Death Penalty Information Center:

Death sentences and actual executions for female offenders are also rare in comparison to such events for male offenders. In fact, women are more likely to be dropped out of the system the further the capital punishment system progresses. Following in summary outline form are the data indicating this screening out effect:

  • women account for about 1 in 10 (10%) murder arrests;
  • women account for only 1 in 50 (2.1%) death sentences imposed at the trial level;
  • women account for only 1 in 70 (1.4%) persons presently on death row; and
  • women account for only 1 in 90 (1.1%) persons actually executed in the modern era.**

At the end of a chain of improbabilities, Smith apparently met her death with composure. “To the families, I want to say I’m sorry for the pain and loss I’ve caused you,” she said from the gurney. “I ask that you forgive me. You must forgive to be forgiven.”

* See charts of female executions through 1962 and since 1900, both courtesy of the comprehensive Espy file of all executions in American history.

** This calculation appears to be slightly dated, with women currently accounting almost exactly 1 in 100 persons actually executed. The last 117 American prisoners executed have all been men.

(All stats are as of publication date in December 2007)

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