California leads the nation with 23 women on Death Row, but the condemned women are largely invisible and forgotten behind bars, and their stories rarely see the light of day.
California has more than three times the number of condemned women in Texas (six on condemn) and in Alabama (five on condemn), according a Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) report.
The women on California’s Death Row are housed in Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla. Until 1933, they were housed in San Quentin in the Women’s Ward. They were relocated to California Institution for Women at Tehachapi, which opened that same year.
“There is far less conflict be- tween the women on Death Row than with men,” Linda Fox, a paralegal who recently retired from the California Appellate Project, told San Quentin News. “They look out for each other— they have a different sort of experience. They interact in a different way; it’s a different community.”
Fox worked with attorneys on death row cases and had the opportunity to visit the women.
“I think they are less iso- lated than the men, but they are isolated from the rest of the women population. It’s a prison within a prison,” Fox said. “I know men do a lot of bonding in prison; they make friends they would not make otherwise, but for the women, it’s like a family.”
According to a sergeant at CCWF, women on condemned row have access to hobby crafts, religious programs and to Adult Basic Education and the Voluntary Education Program (VEP). They can also take college courses via the mail.
Most women on Death Row are there because they killed a husband or hired someone to do it, or because they killed their children, Fox noted.
Catherine Thompson, whom Fox said she worked with, has been on Death Row since 1993.
“Cathy is probably 60 now.
She’s African American; she has a son who is pretty successful; she’s a very articulate woman. She is college educated,” Fox said.
Thompson was convicted as the mastermind of her husband’s murder. But there was no direct evidence presented by prosecutors that proved her involvement, according to “Women on Death Row in California,” an article in ThoughtCo.com. But the jury found her guilty, and she was sentenced to death.
All her accomplices received lesser sentences, including the shooter, who was found guilty and received a life sentence.
“There’s a great sadness in your heart knowing you’re going to die and going to leave the people you love,” Maureen McDermott, the first woman in California to be sentenced to the death penalty since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, told the Los Angeles Times back in 1992. “But I’m not afraid to die. If they want to murder me, let them murder me. My life is ruined anyway.”
At the age of 44, McDermott became the first woman condemned to death in California since its reinstitution in 1978. She is in now her seventies.
The last woman executed in California was Elizabeth Ann “Ma” Duncan, 58, on Aug. 8, 1962. She was convicted of hiring two people to murder her pregnant daughter-in-law. There have only been four women executed in California since 1893.
The Chowchilla prison, which was opened in 1990, converted a housing unit to hold 10 women on a top floor, and the bottom floor became a common area and an exercise area.
Since the increase in the number of women on California’s Death Row, the bottom floor now houses more women, and they have their own exercise yard.
“What kind of life is this?
Waking up every morning to a cement wall is an unbearable future,” said McDermott in the L.A. Times article. “I sometimes think the gas chamber is better than staring at these walls for the rest of my life.”
As of 2018, there were 55 women on death row in America. There have been 16 women executed since 1976 — two by electrocution, the rest by lethal injection, the DPIC report said.
Emma LeDoux holds the distinction of being the first woman ever sentenced to death in California in 1906. In 1907 she complained about her notoriety:
“It seems that it is not enough for people to crowd and block the streets to stare at me, as if I were some sort of a Fourth of July horrible. Now they must start these rumors,” LeDoux said. “In justice to myself, I’m glad you came.” But she avoided the hangman when she was granted a retrial after appealing her case. She was eventually released to parole in 1920 but wound up back in prison in 1931, where she died in 1941.