California · Female Killers

First woman given the death penalty in California murders her abusive husband

March 24, 1934
Burbank, California
Nellie May Madison shoots and kills her husband in their home

Nellie had been a longtime victim of domestic abuse at the hand of her husband, Eric, before she confronted him with a gun as he lay in bed. He responded to the threat by throwing two of several butcher knives he had stored under his bed for whatever reason. Both knives thrown missed Nellie and, as Eric reached for a third, she shot her husband 5 times. She fled the scene but was found two days later, hiding in a mountain cabin. She was tried, convicted, and became the first woman in the state of California to be sentenced to death.

During the sentencing portion of her trial, she was encouraged by her ex-husband to explain her spousal abuse. She reluctantly did, though the judge presiding declared the defense “ridiculous” and refused leniency. The jurors who found her guilty, after hearing her motive behind the murder, petitioned the governor to commute her sentence to life, which was granted. Nellie then began a campaign to further reduce her sentence and was released from prison in 1943. She died of a stroke 10 years later.

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