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  • Saving Jeannace June Freeman:Capital Punishment and the Lesbian as Victim in Oregon, 1961–1964
  • Lauren Jae Gutterman (bio)

On 3 November 1964 More Than 60 percent of voters in Oregon chose to repeal the state's death penalty.1 Only the second time in American history that abolition had directly succeeded at the polls, Oregon's 1964 vote marked the culmination of years of grassroots organizing by anti–death penalty activists in the state.2 Progressive journalists heralded the referendum in Oregon as a major victory of the broader movement to abolish the death penalty nationwide, and it paved the way for the successful campaigns of legislators in New York, Iowa, Vermont, and West Virginia, who repealed their states' capital punishment statutes the following year.3 [End Page 134]

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Figure 1.

Freeman at age nineteen following her arrest. Printed in the Oregonian, 18 May 1961. Courtesy of Jeff Ellsworth.

The death penalty was more than an abstract political issue for the Oregonians who went to the polls that day. In the balance hung the lives of three white convicted murderers on death row: Larry West Shipley, Herbert Floyd Mitchell, and Jeannace June Freeman, the first woman sentenced to death in the state.4 Prior to the vote, Governor Mark O. Hatfield made clear his personal, moral opposition to capital punishment, and he implied [End Page 135] that he would commute the sentences of the three death-row inmates to life imprisonment should voters favor abolition.5 When Hatfield followed through on his promise and commuted the sentences of Shipley, Mitchell, and Freeman a mere forty-eight hours after the referendum vote, none understood more profoundly than they how Oregon's voters had saved their lives. According to the Oregonian, all three inmates stated in separate interviews that they wanted "to thank the people" of Oregon.6

In the months and even years leading up to the 1964 vote, Freeman's case received far more media attention than that of either Shipley or Mitchell. Tellingly, on 6 November 1964 the headline of a United Press International story on the commutations read: "Hatfield Spares Jeannace, Two Others from Death in Chamber."7 According to scholar and activist Hugo Adam Bedau, then a member of the Oregon Council to Abolish the Death Penalty and a professor of philosophy at Reed College, "throughout the early 1960s in Oregon, the controversy over capital punishment had been symbolized for many by Jeannace June Freeman."8 Freeman's case attracted so much attention not only because she had the distinction of being the first woman to receive the death sentence in Oregon's history—at a mere twenty years old—but also because she was found guilty of an exceptionally brutal and sexually sensational crime. On 11 May 1961, Freeman and her lover Gertrude Nunez Jackson murdered Jackson's two children: six-year-old Larry and four-year-old Martha.9 Larry was strangled and beaten with a tire iron. Both children were abused to make it appear as if they had been raped. Their naked bodies were then thrown into the 350-foot-deep Crooked River Gorge. At the time, Martha was still alive. Initially, newspaper articles did not make explicit the homosexual nature of Freeman and Jackson's relationship, describing Freeman vaguely as Jackson's "girl friend."10 But [End Page 136] Freeman's cropped hair and masculine clothing—consistently described and/or illustrated in early newspaper coverage of the case—signaled that there was something queer about her from the very beginning.

Based on a close examination of the coverage of Freeman's case in more than three hundred articles, editorials, and letters published in ten of Oregon's daily newspapers, this article will demonstrate that it was not despite but in part because of her unconventional gender presentation and her homosexuality that Freeman came to be seen as a victim undeserving of execution and capable of reformation.11 In some ways, this argument challenges what we know about lesbians and criminal justice. Scholars such as Lisa Duggan and Lynda Hart have demonstrated that since the late nineteenth century, the figure of the...


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