Killing the Killers: Women on Death Row. in the United States
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It’s 8:oo pm and unseasonably warm for December. The night is calm. The stars are bright. The moon is almost full. Except for two groups of people and a wrought iron sign like one you might see over a cemetery gate, there is little to indicate we have just arrived at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. We left Oklahoma City three hours ago in such a rush that the camera and sound women ended up carrying equipment on their laps. We are here to film the events surrounding the execution of Nadean Smith, a native Oklahoman— a Cherokee woman. Lethal chemicals will start flowing through her veins at 9:00 pm. I pray she dies quickly. A five-woman crew, we have been together twenty-four hours a day for almost a week filming and interviewing events surrounding this moment. Yet, as Nadean’s final moments draw near, we find less and less to say.
Since the mid-1950s executions in the United States have been closed. This means there are few witnesses, and even though we appear to support legal murder we don’t really want to see it. In truth, we are happy to let the media shape our imaginations in this regard. For the most part, the media is more than willing to oblige us on tv, radio, newspapers, and movies as well as through documentaries and docudramas. And in recent years there has emerged a whole subgenre of writing that might appropriately be termed “execution literature.”
When asked to contribute to this volume I was both honoured and concerned. I have no credentials in communications nor am I a film critic. I have never ventured into film studies although I do understand something of feminism. What I know best are women on death row (O’Shea and Fletcher 1997, 1999; O’Shea 2000).
These women have been sentenced to death either for capital murder or for having been an accomplice to a capital murder. For the purposes of this chapter I focus on the media presentation of the case of Karla Faye Tucker, whose execution ushered in a new era of executing women in the United States. I pay particular attention to the construction of Karla through television. Interspersed with the presentation of her televised story is a personal story from a time I spent in the State of Oklahoma with an all-female film crew to record the events preceding the execution of another woman on death row, Nadean Smith. This was on 1 December 2001. These reflections appear in italics throughout the chapter.