Women are treated differently by the justice system in the United States. Their cases are often fraught with prosecutorial misconduct, falsifying or withholding evidence, and gender-based bias.
In many cases the bias against women by prosecutors, judges, and juries is often pivotal in deciding the case. This bias will often lead to vilification of a woman on the grounds that the crime was committed out of passion, rage, or another archaic nonsensical reason that parrots stereotypes of characteristics of women. In many cases women are convicted using circumstantial evidence. In recent years the plight that women face within the judicial system has begun to be studied by the law community. According to the Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School “In 64% of female exonerees’ cases, no crime had occurred” and “40% of female exonerees were victims of police or prosecutorial misconduct”. Thanks to Northwestern University Law School and others this demographic information regarding women and wrongful convictions has shed more light on a significant problem.
In one such case, Cynthia Sommer was convicted of poisoning her husband with arsenic and charged with murder. At her trial, a defense forensic toxicologist testified that if her husband had indeed been poisoned with arsenic, then high levels of the chemical would have been found throughout his body; and this was not the case as arsenic was found in only his liver and kidneys. Cynthia Sommer was convicted nevertheless and spent ten months in prison until she was able to prove her innocence based on ineffective assistance of counsel. For whatever reason, Cynthia Sommer’s defense attorney failed to argue on the merits of the toxicologist’s findings and in turn she almost served a life sentence in prison.
In another case, Gloria Killian was convicted of first-degree murder, attempted murder, burglary, robbery, and conspiracy. These charges were brought against her with no evidence and they were based solely on the testimony of one man, Gary Masse. This false testimony proved to be enough for the Sacramento, CA sheriff’s office to arrest her. Masse later admitted that his testimony against Killian was a lie and he had tried to make a deal with the prosecution for leniency in his own case in exchange for the testimony. Killian’s conviction was overturned and she was released in August 2002 after being imprisoned for 16 years.
Both of the cases of these women indicate how easy it has become to be convicted of a crime you didn’t commit due to gender-biased evidence and false testimonies. In the case of Gloria Killian, the word of a convicted male murderer was trusted over that of an innocent woman to such an extent that she lost 16 years of her life.
This issue will be addressed in an upcoming lecture at Gage Gallery in Chicago sponsored by Roosevelt University. Recently exonerated Nicole Harris and her attorney Karen Daniel, the co-founder of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Women, will talk about the particular struggles that wrongfully convicted women face.
Harris was recently released from prison after a wrongful conviction through a forced confession at the hands of the Chicago Police Department. She had served seven years of a 30-year sentence. Information about the upcoming wrongful conviction lecture can be found at Roosevelt University.