‘She-Devils’: The anatomy of female wrongful convictions
On International Women’s Day, Women’s Justice Advocate Naima Sakande explores why it is that women are convicted of crimes they did not commit.
I sat across from Cookie in her cramped kitchen, balancing my laptop on my knees and trying to angle the microphone towards her. I was trying to work out how this careful woman with wiry black hair and a love for drawing and crafts had ended up serving 14 years in prison for the murder of her baby son. Cookie is a client of ours in the Women’s Justice Initiative at the Centre for Criminal Appeals and vehemently maintains her innocence.
Cookie’s case is shocking in its tragedy. Her 12-week-old baby son passed away suddenly one sunny afternoon after suffering a nosebleed at home. Cookie was told by the hospital that they suspected Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). SIDS, also known as cot death, is described by the NHS as “the sudden, unexpected and unexplained death of an apparently healthy baby”. But a few weeks later, the police arrested her for the murder of her son and, after a lengthy trial, she was convicted of smothering him to death.
We represent Cookie, because after careful analysis of her case, we believe her to be innocent. But through my interactions with her, I began to be curious about the role womanhood played in her wrongful conviction.
The mechanisms by which women and men come to be wrongfully convicted differ significantly. The National Registry of Exonerations in the US shows that 63% of exonerated women were convicted in cases in which no crime in fact occurred (compared with 21% of male exonerees). 40% of female exonerees were wrongfully convicted of harming children or loved ones in their care. Statistics on exoneration are not kept in the UK, but we remember with horror cases like those of Sally Clark and Angela Cannings, mothers accused of killing their children, who were exonerated when it was revealed the scientific evidence that had convicted them was suspect.
When Cookie’s case came to court she had spent a year on bail immersing herself in medical literature on infant deaths, whilst grieving and desperately trying to come to terms with the death of her son. She was careful in court.
“I knew that I didn’t want to express emotions in that court room. As far as I am concerned, if I am showing emotions then I can’t focus. If I’m crying then I’m not hearing and I need to hear. I can’t see and I need to see. If you let emotions out you will just be a wreck. You bottle it up. You block them off.”
But, as she reflects;
“The fact that in my situation I didn’t express emotions made me appear cold and uncaring. And whether we like it or not, the evidence isn’t just what is verbally said. Body language and presentation has an impact on jury opinion.”
The fact that Cookie was accused of a crime against a child, and worse than that, her own child, further exacerbated the way gender stereotypes played out against her. She not only had to fight the legal charges against her, but also the immediate negative public and institutional opinion of her as a woman. As Helena Kennedy wrote in her recent long read for the Guardian, “Women who murder summon up a special revulsion, especially if they do not present in a sympathetic way.” Cookie reflected:
“Whether we like it or not, the fact that I am a mother and my son died does have an impact. People have expectations about what mothering should involve. When they hear a mother has allegedly killed her baby they have knee-jerk reaction and think the accusation wouldn’t be made without solid evidence. They don’t even need to hear the evidence because the idea of mother killing her own child is so horrendous.”
Media attention perpetuates the problem. According to a 2015 study on the role of stereotypes in the wrongful conviction of women, reports about female crime suspects get more attention than those about male suspects and women accused of violent crime get more attention still. They are more likely to appear on the front page or in the main sections of the paper, have larger headlines, get more days of coverage and are more likely to have their photo published. When the crime involves a child, the figures jump even higher. More exposure in the media leads to increased pressure on the police and prosecution to get a conviction and can increase the risk of wrongful convictions.
And there are costs to not fulfilling the stereotype of womanhood. Studies have shown that women who are perceived as gender-inappropriate are penalised with harsher sentences in court than women who present as more feminine.
We continue to work on Cookie’s case and those of women like her, because we believe that women should not have to face the duel stigma of being accused of a crime in law and a crime against womanhood. We must be aware of the pitfalls for justice that are created by our hunger for narratives of ‘she-devil’ women and withhold judgement when salacious headlines tempt us to rush in.
Sitting in Cookie’s kitchen, I was struck by her extraordinary composure and resilience in the face of trauma few of us can imagine. I asked her if she could have three wishes, what would they be. She told me;
“I wish that my son had peace. I wish that my other children were happy. I wish that nobody else was where I am. It would be great to wave a wand and stop wrongful conviction.”