Being gay is fatal in the US courts

Lesbians are far more likely to end up on Death Row in the US than killers who are straight, writes Vanessa Thorpe
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The Independent Online
A woman who plans to commit a murder in the southern states of America should be certain to wear frilly dresses. It could turn out to be the best way for her to avoid the electric chair.

Perverted Justice, a documentary which goes out on Channel 4 tomorrow night, reveals that an amazing 40 per cent of women awaiting execution on death row in the United States are either lesbian or have had the suggestion that they were a masculine man-hater made against them during trial.

The disproportionate figure contrasts with an estimated 1 to 10 per cent of lesbians in the population as a whole. "Lesbianism is not often actually stated in court by the prosecution, but it is implied all the time," says Valentine Schmidt, producer of the documentary. "The idea is repeatedly put over that the defendant is not normal."

Gay organisations in the States have tended to play down the trend. So when Schmidt and her film-making team travelled out to prisons in Kentucky, Carolina and Florida last year, they realised they were tackling an issue that might backfire.

"Women and killing is a slightly sexy subject in a rather negative way, but there is no indication at all that lesbians are more likely to be involved in violent crime. Statistics show they are more likely to be victims than perpetrators," she says.

Her film does not set out to suggest that any of these women are innocent. Instead, it asks why, if only 1 per cent of convicted murderers are sentenced to death, is it that so many of the chosen few are lesbians?

It is a judicial distortion which she believes is partly fostered by the glamorous images of warped homicidal lesbians used in films such as Basic Instinct, Heavenly Creatures and the British film Butterfly Kiss. "Lesbians have consistently been portrayed as predatory and violent. But the other big factor in the South is prejudice. The fundamentalist religious Right there is the strongest political movement and there is a very strong belief in the death penalty, too."

Schmidt gained access to Andrea Jackson (left), a young black woman who killed a police officer and who has been waiting on death row in Florida since 1984. During her trial the jury was told she hated to be touched by men.

Jackson sees her own experience as just part of the unfairness of a process which discriminates against several groups. "You go on death row, you're gonna find most people have been abused in their lives and are poor.

"Rich people don't go to prison. They don't go to death row, that's for sure."