Case underlines rarity in Md. of death penalty for women

Trial in Frederick County killings gets under way

October 21, 2003|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

A year ago, prosecutors say, Sonya Marie Daniels drove into the Frederick County town of Walkersville, stopped her minivan, took out a gun and fatally shot a 16-year-old girl and her 5-week-old baby.

Today, a fairly ordinary round of jury selection is expected in the murder trial of Daniels, 26. But the case is hardly an ordinary one for Maryland: In a state where no woman has been sentenced to die in nearly two decades - where there is no record of a woman being executed for more than a century - Daniels could receive the death penalty if convicted.

"It is unusual, but the circumstances of this case" warrant it, said Frederick County State's Attorney Scott Rolle. In his 16 years in the job, he said, Daniels is the first defendant, male or female, for whom his office has sought a death sentence.

Authorities say Daniels tried to kidnap Deanna Marie Prichard and her infant, Makayla Ann Frost, from the street outside their Discovery Boulevard home. When mother and baby wouldn't get in the van, Daniels is alleged to have shot them.

Daniels, who lived in Martinsburg, W.Va., has been described as a former longtime girlfriend of the father of Prichard's baby. The baby's father, Tracy L. Frost, was in the Washington County Detention Center awaiting trial on drug charges when the killing occurred.

Katy O'Donnell, chief of the Maryland public defender's capital defense division and one of Daniels' attorneys, declined to discuss the case. The trial will be held in Montgomery County at her lawyers' request.

Ten men and no women are on Maryland's death row. In the United States, about 3,500 people were on death row as of July 1, 49 of them women, Over the past 100 years, according to a study done at Ohio Northern University, fewer than 50 women have been executed nationwide out of more than 8,100 executions overall.

The last woman executed in the United States died a year ago in Florida. Three women were executed in Oklahoma in 2001, the most executions of women in any state since 1953, according to the Ohio Northern study. In a highly publicized case in 1998, Karla Faye Tucker became the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War.

The reasons capital punishment is rare for women are many, experts say. First and foremost, women don't commit as many of the heinous crimes that typically draw a death sentence.

Also, a murder committed by a woman is often her first offense - a so-called crime of passion against a husband or a child - which means that she does not have a lengthy criminal background and, by extension, does not engender fear that she will strike again. Andrea Yates, the Texas woman convicted last year of drowning her five children, did not receive the death penalty.

Often, juries find women more sympathetic than men and may find it harder to vote for death.

"There are some deeper issues there," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "Jurors see them as a human being they can identify with. They see the person and not just the series of crimes."

Said Jane Henderson, co-director of the Quixote Center, a grass-roots group in Prince George's County that has been working for death-penalty moratoriums around the nation: "It's harder to get a jury to do it. I think we fear men more. ... If a jury is fearful of someone's future dangerousness, they're more likely to opt for death."

With so many subjective factors, she said, "ultimately, what a person looks like is going to play" in the decision.

In 1981, Annette L. Stebbing was convicted along with her husband, Bernard, of strangling Bernard's step-niece, Dena Polis, while the three were in a van parked along an isolated road in Harford County. According to newspaper accounts, Annette Stebbing strangled Polis as she held her down while her husband raped her. She received the death penalty. Her husband did not.

A judge reduced her sentence to life in prison in 1985.

In 1982, Doris Ann Foster was convicted of fatally stabbing hotel owner Josephine Dietrich, 71, with a screwdriver during a robbery at a North East motel. Two juries convicted her.

Five years later, then-Gov. Harry Hughes granted Foster clemency on his last day in office, reducing her capital sentence to life without parole. Seventeen male prisoners remained on death row.

Laura Murry, deputy chief of the Maryland public defender's capital defense division, said she believes her office most recently handled a female capital case in 2000, when Elva Reid was accused of killing her boyfriend and then setting fire to her Turners Station house to cover up the crime. In the process, she killed one of her children.

Reid pleaded guilty and Baltimore County prosecutors agreed to drop the death penalty.

Murry believes the apparent reluctance to seek capital punishment for female killers could be changing.

"As time goes on, prosecutors are getting less leery about pursuing death for women," she said.

University of Hawaii criminologist Meda Chesney-Lind agreed: "There is a willingness to execute women that wasn't present two decades ago."

Now, she said, there is "this kind of backlash: `Women want equality, well, by God we'll give them equality and that includes capital punishment.' "

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