In the furor over the revival of capital punishment in the U.S., it is sometimes forgotten that execution is not for men only. The last woman put to death in this country was Elizabeth Ann Duncan (above), who died in 1962 in the California gas chamber for the murder of her pregnant daughter-in-law. Now five women face the death sentence—in Ohio, Florida and Georgia. The constitutionality of Ohio’s death penalty law is being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court, but no legal impediments remain in the other states. The women on these pages all profess faith that somehow they will be spared, but the question must arise unbidden for each, “Could I be the first?”
A condemned mother has one last appeal
“When the energy crisis is over, they’ll come and get me,” jokes Alberta Osborne, 54, but her gallows humor is a mask for fear. After 22 months under death sentence at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, she is down to her last appeal (now before the U.S. Supreme Court) and realizes that time may be running out. “I try to keep myself occupied, not to think,” she says.
One of three women sharing Death Row on the second floor of the hospital and admissions building, Mrs. Osborne paid her son, Carl, and a friend $325 to murder her ex-lover’s wife in 1974. She and the two men pleaded innocent, but her daughter Kay, now 20, testified to the conspiracy, and all three were sentenced to the electric chair.
Born in Huntington, W.Va., the daughter of a railroad clerk, Alberta went to work at 15 and was married three times before she was 29. A onetime waitress and secretary, she also played bass and guitar in country-and-Western bands. Though she divorced her third husband—father of her three grown children—in 1968, they had planned to remarry. He died of a heart attack after her trial. Another daughter, Cheryl, 19, comes to see her mother regularly, and Carl writes often from his own Death Row cell. Kay will not visit, but a card arrived at the prison last Mother’s Day. “It was unsigned, with no return address,” Alberta says, “but I knew the handwriting.” She weeps uncontrollably when she talks of her children: “I love them all. They are my life.”
Alberta, who suffered a heart attack herself last October, is assistant to the prison’s Catholic chaplain and has outfitted her 8-by-13-foot cell with a crucifix, candles and a kneeling bench. She finds the spiritual life not entirely consoling. “To wait like this,” she admits, “is to die every day.”
Sandra Lockett’s pride hasn’t cracked
“Momma, are you a killer, and are they gonna put you in the electric chair?” Sandra Lockett’s 7-year-old son, Albert, asks her on visiting days. “When he says things like that,” she admits, “it really shakes me up.”
Lockett, 23, has been on Ohio’s Death Row for almost two years, since her conviction for murder and robbery in the shooting of an Akron pawnbroker. She insists she is innocent, pointing out that the admitted trigger-man in the case first claimed she helped to plan the robbery and drove the getaway car, then later recanted his testimony. The Ohio Supreme Court voted 4-3 to deny her a new trial, but her lawyers are appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The daughter of a construction worker, Sandra grew up on Akron’s shabby south side. “Seventeen of us lived in a seven-room house,” she sighs. “It was bad, but we made it.” Sandra dropped out of high school, married at 15 and had a child, but later left her husband. “He wouldn’t work,” she says. “I wanted someone who would give my child what my father gave me.”
Prison has taken its toll on Sandra. “My nerves got so bad my hair fell out,” she says. Now she wears a wig and needs pills to sleep, but her close-knit family has helped sustain her. “I’ve never dropped my head,” she says. “I hold it high. Even though I have nowhere to go, I dress when they visit. I want to look like a lady for them.”
Pat Wernert’s cell is ‘the end of the world’
“I’m the new kid on the block,” says Patricia Wernert, 34, a schoolmarmish ex-Army wife who is the most recent arrival on Ohio’s Death Row for women. “When they brought me here last November I was manacled and handcuffed, then stripped, given a shower and put in a room. I realized then, ‘Here I am. This is the end of the world.’ ”
Mrs. Wernert was convicted of complicity in the brutal 1975 beating deaths of her husband David’s 67-year-old mother and 97-year-old grandmother. Prosecutors said the victims, who lived together in the plush Toledo suburb of Ottawa Hills, were killed for a $2 million inheritance. David Wernert and another man are also awaiting execution for the crime.
The tiny cell where Mrs. Wernert passes each day seems light years removed from the Erie, Mich. farm where she grew up. Married a week after graduating from high school, she traveled with her Army officer husband to bases at home and abroad (and attended such schools as the University of Heidelberg). Though she and Wernert maintain a Death Row correspondence, her deepest attachment is to her 13-year-old son, David, who now lives with friends. “He’s very impressionable,” says his mother. “I don’t want him to grow up hating the police.”
Mrs. Wernert spends her days reading law books, poring over auto racing magazines (she and her husband owned and raced Triumphs) and writing legal appeals “for some of the girls here.” Though she takes tranquilizers and a daily sleeping pill, she can flippantly refer to the electric chair as “ole thunderbolt.” She eats her meals with the two other condemned women at Marysville. “We joke about it,” Patricia says. “Some people think it is ghoulish, but this is the only way to cope. Otherwise we’d be eaten up inside.”
A jailhouse lawyer talks of togetherness
For all but 75 minutes each week, Sonia Jacobs claims, she is locked in a 9-by-6-foot cell at the State Correctional Institution for Women in Lowell, Fla. Her meals are passed through a slot in the door, and when she is outside her cell no other prisoner may speak to her. She passes her time reading, drawing and writing to her lover, convicted murderer Jessie Tafero, 30, father of her 3-year-old daughter, Christina. Tafero also faces execution. “When I get real depressed,” says Sonia, “I write to myself. I don’t want to tell my mother my troubles, because she’d feel terrible.”
Proclaiming her innocence, Jacobs, 29, says her only crime was “being in the wrong place at the wrong time”—asleep one February morning in 1976 in a parked Camaro stashed with cocaine and guns. With her were Tafero, another ex-con, little Christina, and Soma’s 9-year-old son, Eric, from a teenage marriage. Trial testimony indicated that as a Florida highway patrolman and a Canadian constable friend were searching the two men at a highway rest stop near Pompano Beach, Sonia started shooting. Tafero grabbed the gun from her and killed both officers. “She and Tafero were crazy,” a friend said later. “Not crazy-crazy—drug crazy.”
The daughter of a textile manufacturer, Sonia was raised in New York suburbs in what she terms a “middle-class environment.” She had nearly three years of college. After the breakup of her marriage to a high school sweetheart, she moved with her parents to Miami and later followed them to Charlotte, N.C. She was arrested at various times for prostitution, drug possession, forgery and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. (After the murders it was revealed that Eric had apparently never attended school.) Attorney Harold Rosen, a family friend who is now mayor of Miami Beach, helped keep her out of prison.
An ambitious jailhouse lawyer, Sonia has filed suit charging sex discrimination in her treatment as a Death Row inmate. She remains confident her appeal will succeed, and that she will be reunited with her children, now being raised by her parents. “We had fun together,” she recalls nostalgically of her life with Tafero. “We weren’t always looking for babysitters. We did everything as a family.”
Prison is breaking an ex-nurse’s health
In the more than two years she has spent in a cell at the Bibb County Jail in Macon, Ga., Rebecca Machetti, 38, suffered migraine headaches and skin rashes, as well as a stroke that left her vision impaired. “The whole thing is so bizarre,” says her mother. “Becky’s a trained nurse, always full of love and compassion for people. I know she would never harm anybody.”
A Bibb County jury disagreed. It condemned Mrs. Machetti for her part in planning the 1974 shotgun murders of her former husband, Ronald Akins, and his wife. Also convicted were her present husband, who was sentenced to death, and an accomplice who testified for the state and got life imprisonment. The motive, the state said, was insurance money and other funds due the three daughters Mrs. Machetti and Akins had during their 17-year marriage. They were divorced in 1973.
Though Mrs. Machetti is permitted few visitors, those who see her say she is depressed and highly emotional. “She’s going to need psychiatric help if she gets out,” says a friend, “but she’s extremely intelligent—a member of Mensa—and I’m sure she can make it.” A convert to Roman Catholicism, Mrs. Machetti does research for groups opposing capital punishment and corresponds with prisoners elsewhere. “Becky reaches out to everybody,” says her mother. “She writes to between 75 and 100 inmates all over the country, and I get letters telling me how much she means to them.” An anticapital punishment campaigner gives another view of Mrs. Machetti: “She’s articulate, manipulative and persuasive. She could convince anybody the moon is made of green cheese. She’s exceptional.”