Volume XXIII

Worthy of Saving? An Exploration of How Race, Gender Expression, and Sexuality Intersect and Inform Public Opinion and Decisions about State-Sanctioned Killings

by Elaina Rahrig

“Penalty communicates meaning not just about crime and punishment but also about power, authority, legitimacy, normality, morality, personhood, social relations and a host of other tangential matters.”

This piece explores the ways race, gender (and more specifically, gender performance), and sexuality interact in the American criminal legal system. As Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, and Heather Ann Thompson have noted, the criminal legal system “has had a major impact on everything from how urban and suburban spaces have evolved to how electoral maps are drawn to how national borders are defined and maintained to how state and federal resources are distributed to how social movements are made and unmade to how gender roles are bolstered and undermined to how cultural norms and identities are forged and reinforced to how sexuality is profiled and policed.”

It would be logistically impossible to punish every single person who commits a criminalized act in the United States. However, “[s]imply put, because prisons require prisoners, criminals must be produced.” Thus, decisionmakers in American criminal legal systems must make choices about who to punish. In this piece, I survey the ways these identities inform each other, public opinion, and thus decisionmakers’ choices about who and how severely to punish. While public opinion is not always an appropriate proxy for prediction of outcomes, it is a helpful gauge of the United States’s collective consciousness and processing of culpability. Because of the spatial limitations of this project, I focus mainly on women’s cases. I use capital defendants as case studies because those tend to be some of the cases which receive the most media attention.

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