When Teresa Lewis was executed on Sept. 23, she became the first woman to be put to death in Virginia in almost a century. A 41-year-old woman who was borderline retarded, with an IQ of 72, she had married her job supervisor at a textile factory. Her adult stepson in the U.S. Army Reserve took out a $250,000 life insurance policy when he was called to active duty, and he named his father as the beneficiary. Teresa schemed with two young men to kill both father and son for the life insurance. The murder took place in 2002, when her two accomplices, armed with shotguns, entered her trailer and shot both husband and stepson in their beds.
Her supporters did not dispute her guilt, nor did she, but they emphasized her mental limitations in an effort to persuade Gov. Robert McDonnell to commute the sentence to life in prison. The Supreme Court had ruled in 2002 in another Virginia case, Atkins v. Virginia, that it is unlawful to execute anyone with mental retardation. The widely accepted measure for that condition is an IQ of 70 or less. But accuracy in judging such matters is rough at best, with a considerable margin for error. During the appeals process, two psychiatric experts who examined Ms. Lewis said that she did not have the mental acuity to plan such a murder for hire. Eventually, the case went to the Supreme Court in an effort to block the execution, but the justices declined to halt it.
The European Union asked the governor to commute Ms. Lewis’s sentence to life because of her mental status, but again the request was denied. The E.U. ambassador to the United States wrote that the union “considers the execution of people with mental disorders of all types contrary to minimal standards of human rights.” The union’s action shows that western European countries, which have abandoned capital punishment, take disapproving notice of its continuing use in the United States—not least in Virginia, which is second only to Texas in the number of executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. But the larger question remains: How much longer will the United States continue to make use of capital punishment? Its inequities are evident. Among the 35 states that permit it, there are many differences in how it is applied. A murder in one state might result in its use, for example, while the same crime in another state would not.
Inadequate legal representation for prisoners from low-income backgrounds is another cause for concern in implementing capital punishment. Over 90 percent of those on death row could not afford their own attorney and had to rely on court-appointed lawyers or public defenders, who frequently have little experience and few resources for handling capital cases. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said, “People who are well represented do not get the death penalty.”
According to Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, Teresa Lewis had a court-appointed attorney who chose not to present the case before a jury, from which she might have obtained clemency. “She was not well represented,” Mr. Dieter said, since evidence of her mental disability was not fully brought out, nor were all the mitigating circumstances presented. One co-defendant, who committed suicide in prison, admitted to having been the mastermind of the crime. The second defendant received not the death penalty, but life without parole. Ms. Lewis’s appeals lawyers later did a thorough job, Mr. Dieter said, in terms of additional psychological testing and further mitigating evidence, such as a letter from one of the gunmen admitting he was the driving force behind the crime, and a more thorough analysis of Ms. Lewis’s mental problems. “If placed before a jury, it is very possible that at least one juror would have found this mitigating evidence sufficient to give a life sentence,” he said, adding, “but by then it was too late.”
The late Justice Harry Blackmun, who at one time supported capital punishment, said before his retirement that carrying it out “remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice and mistakes.” For Teresa Lewis, the issue of mental competency should have led at most to life without parole rather than death. Clemency was called for. Those who knew her in prison spoke of how she had comforted other prisoners, singing and praying with them. Her appeals lawyer, James E. Rocap III, said of her after the execution: “Tonight the death machine exterminated the beautiful, childlike and loving spirit of Teresa Lewis.”
Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” emphasized the church’s opposition to the death penalty. It is permissible, he wrote, only in cases of absolute necessity, “when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” He added that “such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” Certainly imprisonment was available as a sure remedy in the case of Teresa Lewis.