In the United States, most prosecutors typically do not seek the death penalty—and juries do not impose it—unless the crime involves a degree of cruelty or pain that distinguishes it from the thousands of other homicides that are carried out every year. In 2004, Brenda Andrew was convicted of killing her husband for insurance proceeds. But his death, which resulted from a fatal shooting, bore few of the hallmarks of a capital case. Moreover, Brenda had no criminal record. So why did the jury sentence her to die?
During Brenda’s trial, prosecutors produced male witnesses who testified that Brenda was a sex-crazed “hoochie” who would stop at nothing to satisfy her desires. That evidence included one man’s opinion that Brenda once wore a dress that was tight, short and showed “a lot of cleavage.” It included another man’s opinion that she wore “sexy,” “provocative” outfits. It included extensive details about the places and times in which she had engaged in flirtatious behavior with other men, as well as testimony about her affairs—including relationships that ended more than seventeen years before the crime. It even included testimony that Brenda once dyed her hair red to please a man. After reviewing this evidence, Judge Arlene Johnson of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that Brenda Andrew had been sentenced to die based on “evidence that has no purpose other than to hammer home that Brenda Andrew is a bad wife, a bad mother, and a bad woman. . . The jury was allowed to consider such evidence…in violation of the fundamental rule that a defendant must be convicted, if at all, of the crime charged and not of being a bad woman.” Judge Johnson would have reversed Brenda’s death sentence on this basis—but the male judges of the Oklahoma court determined that the evidence was harmless.
What the prosecutor did to Brenda is not new. As we noted in our blog post on sex shaming within the legal system, such tactics have been used since time immemorial.
Marc Bookman calls Brenda’s case “a testament to the continuing viability of the “evil woman” theory, and the ingrained sexism that persists as an acceptable and even legal veneer.” Of course, Brenda herself is a real person, not a stereotype. She was born and raised in Enid Oklahoma to a middle-class family of devout Christians. She was known as a quiet child who devoted time to her church and to helping others, and she earned good grades in school. At age 21, she married Rob Andrew. When Rob took a job in Texas, she moved there with him, eventually returning to Oklahoma and becoming a Sunday School teacher and stay-at-home mom following the birth of their two children.
Certain characteristics remained constant throughout Brenda’s life. Many people noted her wonderful relationship with her children, stating that she was kind and gentle with them and would always make time for them. Brenda was the “glue that held the family together” after her father’s death. Her cousin describes her as a caring and loving support for her severely mentally impaired brother throughout their childhood. A neighbor describes Brenda as the one who would cook for neighbors who were ill, and would walk with a neighbor with Alzheimer’s so he could get out. Her former employer testified that she was voted “Employee of the Year” not only for her work, but also for spending a great deal of time helping others with their work. Brenda’s aunt reported that even when Brenda was in jail, she helped her following the death of her husband, including sending her dozens of letters. Her Christian faith remains central to her identity to this day.
Brenda’s compassion for others failed to comport with the prosecution’s narrative of Brenda as a deviant, promiscuous slut. During his closing arguments, the prosecutor dramatically opened one of the suitcases that Brenda had taken with her when she traveled to Mexico after her husband’s death. He began displaying Brenda’s underwear before the jury, one piece at a time, asking, “The grieving widow packs this to go sleep in a hotel room…with her boyfriend?!” “The grieving widow packs this in her appropriate act of grief?!” A “grieving widow doesn’t pack her thong underwear and run off with her boyfriend!” And he held these thong panties and a lace bra directly in front of the jury hours before their deliberations were set to begin. The prosecution also hammered home the Bad Mother trope in closing arguments when they asked jurors to sentence Brenda to die: “Would a good mother allow her children to read murder mysteries with their father laying in his grave?” “Would a good mother take them out of school…and have them eat tuna fish and wash dishes in a pot and live on the beach?” In this way, the prosecutor ensured that any weaknesses in the evidence against Brenda would be overcome by the image of her as a lying, cheating wife and irresponsible mother.
In her direct appeal, Brenda’s counsel referred to such moments as being meant to “humiliate and dehumanize” her, and to “reduce her to a venal character in the eyes of the jury.” Bookman describes this as a prosecution tactic of “othering,” vilifying a defendant’s character so severely that jurors are driven to a particular sentence. Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Arlene Johnson agreed, concluding that the “effect was to trivialize the value of her life in the minds of the jurors.”
Brenda Andrew has been on death row since 2004. Her case now rests with the judges of the Federal Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. She is nearing the end of the appellate process. If the courts fail to intervene, the only authority with the power to stop her execution is the Oklahoma parole board and governor. Their decision will reveal whether Oklahoma is willing to condemn a woman to die on the basis of gender-driven stereotypes.
 TT 4244.
 TT 4210-4223.
 TT 4339-4341.
 TT 4241.
 TT 4246-4248.
 Exhs. 309-318.
 TT 4101.
 TT 4103.
 TT 4103.
 The prosecution also hammered home the Bad Mother trope in the closing asking, “Would a good mother allow her children to read murder mysteries with their father laying in his grave?” “Would a good mother take them out of school…and have them eat tuna fish and wash dishes in a pot and live on the beach?” “Would a good mother murder their father?” Brenda was being maligned for failure to comply with all the female gender norms: bad mother, bad wife, and bad woman, none of which had anything to do with the crime. TT 4393, 4399.
 In the Ct. of Criminal Appeals of the State of OK., Andrew v. Oklahoma, Case No. D-2004-1010, p. 42, Feb. 21, 2006.
Media & Publications
Sandra Babcock, Valena Beety, Susan Sharp, Opinion: Why has Brenda Andrew been on death row for 2 decades? It has everything to do with sex, The Oklahoman, July 13, 2023.
Marc Bookman, Features: Sex-Shamed to Death, The Appeal, https://theappeal.org/sex-shamed-to-death-5a28cc7cf2fc/ last accessed June 6, 2023.