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Criminal Law

Crim. Law Journal Spring 2019, Vol. 19, Issue 2

JUANITA SPINELLI: THE FIRST WOMAN EXECUTED AT SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON

By Lani L. Biafore, Esq.

On March 13, 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) issued an executive order that placed a moratorium on executions and essentially halted death row executions indefinitely. However, only voters can overturn the death penalty laws, as they exist in California. There are currently 737 inmates on death row in California. San Quentin, established in 1852, is the oldest prison in California, and it is the current location for male death row inmates. Female death row inmates are currently housed at the Central California Women’s Facility.1 However, all executions must occur at San Quentin.2

Juanita Spinelli, also known as The Duchess3, became the first woman executed by the State of California and the first woman executed by lethal gas at San Quentin on November 21, 1941.4 A leader of a criminal gang, a mother, a grandmother, a seamstress, a seductress, a professional knife thrower, and sometime wrestler, Juanita Spinelli operated out of Northern California. While her personal life was replete with peccadillos that would make a Hollywood writer giddy, the reality of her life was mostly tragic. The constant yearning for emotional and financial stability led her to a life of crime, nefarious associations, and deviant behaviors.

Under her direction, she and her henchmen would conduct robberies and burglaries of businesses in the San Francisco area for money and necessities. In 1940, while in the midst of robbery in San Francisco, a member of her squad killed a shopkeeper. She and her cohorts fled to Sacramento and were hiding in a hotel down by the Sacramento River. Authorities were searching for Spinelli and the entire group involved in the robbery, when she became paranoid. While in Sacramento, she planned to kill an 18-year-old associate, Robert Sherrard, out fear of exposure to the authorities. She and her followers got the teenager drunk on whiskey laced with chloral hydrate, took his clothes off after he passed out, and threw him into the Sacramento River where he drowned. She failed in her attempt to make it look like a suicide, realized the police were still searching for her, and fled toward Reno with several remaining gang members. Tipped off by several of her minions, who feared retaliation from Spinelli, the California Highway Patrol located and arrested her near Truckee. This was her final criminal act.

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