The Maricopa County jury will deliberate against a backdrop of evolving societal views about female murderers. On one hand is a somewhat chivalrous sense that women are not capable of brutality at the same level as men and resort to it under extenuating circumstances – such as sexual abuse that Arias claimed at the hand of her victim. On the other is a sense that women can indeed be cold-blooded killers who are every bit as deserving of execution as male murderers.
James Acker, a criminal justice professor at the State University of New York at Albany, describes the “competing theories" this way. One is that "this is about chivalry, where we’re all bending over backward to make sure no women, or members of the fairer sex, are treated this way, versus the less-sexist notion that women ... who do [commit capital murder] somehow tend to lose their identity as female and become a demonic killer that overwhelms the definition of a woman – that to dispatch someone to execution you almost have to relegate them [to being] outside the human family." Still, he adds, "it’s more difficult to do that with a woman than a man.”
The Arias case alone probably won’t provide much of a guidepost to the direction of sentiment in the US regarding executing women. But the sentencing phase comes at a peculiar time in the annals of death row – chiefly that the share of women murderers entering death row has stayed constant even as the percentage of men sentenced to die has noticeably dropped.