20/12/2010 17:35 GMT | Updated 22/05/2015 10:12 BST

Crime And Punishment: Does Gender Bias Affect Justice?

On September 23, in the state of Virginia USA, Teresa Lewis was killed by lethal injection for arranging the murders of her husband and stepson. Her execution gained worldwide media attention. She was the first woman to be executed for five years in the States, and the first in 98 years in Virginia. Was it just her extremely low IQ of 72, or was it also the fact that she was female that left the western world squirming uncomfortably as her fate approached?

According to the Independent, of more than 1,200 people executed in the US since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, only 12 (including Lewis) have been women. It would suggest a certain leniency towards the fairer sex. As Victor Streib – a university professor who has spent 30 years researching condemned females – put it, there is a certain amount of "queasiness at executing women." In fact, the capital punishment statutes are inadvertently written in favour of women, says Steib. The death penalty is more likely to be passed if murder is committed as part of another felony, such as robbery or rape – and women are statistically less likely to be involved in such crimes. "It's also easier to convince a jury that women suffer emotional distress or other emotional problems more than men," he says.

Perhaps it's just more shocking in Western society when it is a woman who wields the axe or points the gun. The Equal Treatment Bench Book published by the Judicial Studies Board (the body responsible for training judges) was updated in the UK in April. It suggested that women are more likely to have mental health and educational difficulties, more likely to have parenting responsibilities and less likely to commit violent crimes – and these matters should be borne in mind when passing sentence. Supreme Court Judge Baroness Hale was quoted as saying: "It is now well recognised that a misplaced conception of equality has resulted in some very unequal treatment for women and girls."

Well, perhaps not as many women commit violent crimes as men do, but is the woman who kills really any more prone to emotional turmoil and distress than the man who commits a similar violent act? We're all human. The fact is, some women kill in cold blood. When Susan Toop – who was sentenced to life imprisonment on September 30 – took a knife and a flat iron and stabbed and bludgeoned her elderly parents to death at their Bournemouth home, she did so in sound mind according to the jury, who dismissed her defence of diminished responsibility.

So how will the shocking case of Susan Toop, the woman, the nurse who killed her parents, go down in history? Because there is another side to the coin. While it might be harder for us to accept that women are capable of the most heinous of crimes, is it not also true that once a woman is found guilty beyond all reasonable doubt, she is considered by society even more demonic than her male counterpart?

Hasn't Myra Hindley's name always been a little easier to recall than Ian Brady's? Was Rose West's involvement in the torture and deaths of 10 young girls just a little more terrible than Fred's? In 2009, Rekha Kumari-Baker stabbed her two teenage daughters to death and was sentenced to serve a minimum of 33 years in prison. Earlier that same year, Ashok Kalyanjee, who had stabbed his two young sons to death, was told he would serve at least 21 years before being considered for release. Of course, each case, judge and jury is different – but it is hard not to raise one's eyebrows at such markedly different penalties for what were essentially rather similar crimes.

Some on the other side of the pond argued that Lewis was passed the death sentence because she was a woman, to be made an example of. Richard Dieter, of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment, said: "When women cross a certain line and are seen as going outside their societal role, they are considered particularly evil and dangerous."

As certain as death and taxes, people will continue to commit crimes - but it seems that our reactions to those crimes will remain, to some degree, coloured by their gender.

By: Pip Jones