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Copyright (c) 2002 Columbia Journal of Gender & Law 
Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

ARTICLE: Victim or Vamp? Images of Violent Women in the Criminal Justice System


11 Colum. J. Gender & L. 38


Chimene I. Keitner*



The uncritical resort to sex-role stereotypes pervades the trials, sentencings, and media reactions to women who receive the death penalty. Although ideas of sex-appropriate behavior influence innumerable aspects of social relations, their influence in the criminal justice setting can be particularly invidious. In a given trial, a woman defendant's failure to conform to traditional notions of womanhood may lead judges and juries to believe that she is more likely to have committed the offense with which she is charged, to impute a higher degree of mens rea to her criminal action, or to condemn her more harshly for criminal behavior. On a general level, the condemnation of women who, in addition to committing criminal acts, also transgress other sex-role stereotypes, reinforces ideas of deviance and normalcy that can confine women to traditional roles of passivity and helplessness.

While sex discrimination is increasingly recognized as a pervasive feature of many societal institutions and practices, its full range and implications have yet to be charted. The critique of sexism in the criminal justice system tends to be localized to certain arenas, such as the law of rape and domestic violence. Other features of the system, such as the gender segregation of prisons and the widely disparate incarceration rates for men and women, draw relatively little critical attention by comparison. The widespread association of criminality--and especially violence--with men facilitates this oversight, as the naturalization of "male" and "female" insulates certain gender-related disparities ...
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