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Reluctance to Execute Women May Save Mother Who Killed 3 Sons

November 26, 2001|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sixty years ago this week, Juanita "The Duchess" Spinelli--described by a San Quentin warden as "the coldest, hardest character, male or female, I have ever known"--walked into the gas chamber and became the first woman executed by the state of California.

Since then, three women have followed and 12 await death by lethal injection. Whether Socorro Caro joins them is to be decided by a Ventura County jury, but if history is a guide, she'll be more likely to spend the rest of her days in prison without parole.

Earlier this month, Caro was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting three of her young sons as they slept. If she receives the death penalty, she could become one of just a few women in U.S. history to be executed for killing their children, according to historians of capital punishment.

Juries in California appear to be showing less mercy these days toward mothers who kill. Four such women--one of them a grandmother who knifed her two grandchildren--sit on death row at the California Women's Correctional Facility in Chowchilla.

"Given the long history of women not being executed for this kind of crime, that's a surprise," said Victor L. Streib, a visiting professor of law at Michigan State University who has done extensive studies of women and the death penalty.

Either way, the jury that convicted Caro on Nov. 5 will grapple starting Tuesday with a provocative question: If the death of children at a mother's hand is the ultimate betrayal, should that mother be dealt the ultimate punishment?

For years, the answer has been clear.

"We're very reluctant to take the life of a woman," Streib said.

Poring over Chicago police records from 1870 to 1930, one researcher said she was shocked to find not a single conviction in a case of maternal filicide, the murder of children by their mother.

"Society then was much more forgiving of these women," said Michelle Oberman, co-author of a recently published book called "Mothers Who Kill Their Children."

"Many of them were referred to hospitals, treated and released. The immediate impulse was that a woman who was sane wouldn't do this; she was crazy and needed help."

In recent times, juries have remained reluctant, said Oberman, a law professor at DePaul University in Illinois. "They're looking not just at who pulled the trigger but also at who created the environment that allowed this to happen."

In the Caro case, a jury rejected the defense claim that she had been framed by her physician husband, Dr. Xavier Caro. Instead, they accepted the prosecution theory that Caro wanted to punish her husband, who had restricted her funds and conferred with a divorce attorney. She also suspected--correctly, as it turned out--that he was having an affair with a younger woman.

Caro moved from one bedroom to another, shooting her sons in the head at point-blank range before shooting herself in the head.

Mothers who escape the death penalty often are portrayed in court as victims themselves--troubled women whose cries for help never were taken seriously.

That's why a South Carolina jury chose a life sentence instead of death for Susan Smith, who drowned her two sons by rolling her car into a lake in 1994.

"I went in thinking this was the most heinous crime anyone could commit," said juror Leroy Belue Jr. in an interview. "But I learned she had a lot of problems through her life that never were addressed. Her stepfather was sexually abusing her. . . . I was hoping that in prison she'd get some kind of psychiatric help."

Experts are uncertain whether a jury dominated by women would be more or less likely to sentence a mother to death. "Men are more readily sympathetic to the idea that mothering can be difficult and overwhelming," Oberman said.

On the other hand, the jury may share the skittishness of Clinton T. Duffy, the San Quentin warden who arranged Juanita Spinelli's trip to the gas chamber in 1941.

In his memoir, Duffy wrote that Spinelli, an ex-wrestler who ran a Bay Area robbery gang, had drugged a suspected squealer and helped drown him.

"The Duchess was a hag, evil as a witch, horrible to look at, impossible to like," Duffy wrote, "but she was still a woman, and I dreaded the thought of ordering her execution."

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