UPDATE: The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the final appeal made on behalf of Teresa Lewis today (Sept. 22).
by Diane Fanning
On Thursday, the State of Virginia plans to execute a woman for the first time in 98 years. In 2002, Teresa Lewis, who was married and living near Danville, Virginia, in rural Pittsylvania County, had an affair with Matthew Shallenberger. On the night of October 30, Teresa intentionally left a door unlocked when she got into bed with her husband.
Shallenberger and his partner-in-crime Rodney Fuller used that door to enter the trailer, where Teresa lived with her 51-year-old husband Julian and 25-year-old stepson Charles. Shallenberger went to one end of the home and shot the sleeping Julian in the back. At the other end of the trailer, Fuller killed Charles. The motive was $350,000 in insurance money.
After the shooting, Teresa took money from her dying husband's wallet and waited 45 minutes to call police. Despite the delay, Julian was still alive when the deputies arrived and told them, "My wife knows who done this to me." He died moments later.
Shooting men in their sleep is a horrible act. Nonetheless, I am disturbed by the imminent execution of Teresa Lewis. I am not bothered because she's female. After all, although 10 to 12 percent of all homicides are committed by women, they comprise just 2 percent of the population on death row. I believe strongly in equity in the justice system. Justice demands that there should be no gender bias just as there should be no racial bias.
There are three different issues that do trouble me:
1. Teresa Lewis didn't fight the charges; she pleaded guilty before the judge.
It seems illogical to me that someone who admitted guilt would be given a death sentence. It seems the state would want to encourage perpetrators to acknowledge their responsibility. It saves taxpayers money, it saves victims' family members from the anguish of a trial, and it settles the issue in a speedier manner. But when someone does plead guilty and still gets the maximum penalty, it discourages every other killer from making an honest plea.
Fuller appeared first before the judge. He pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against his two co-conspirators. He was given a life sentence. Shallenberger decided to go to trial, but in the middle of the proceedings, he changed his plea to guilty. The same judge said that it wouldn't be fair to give Shallenberger a death sentence when the other killer received life. He gave the second trigger-man the same sentence as the first.
The same judge decided the fate of Teresa Lewis. She pleaded guilty, taking her chances with the judge. Unlike the two men, she had no criminal record, no history of violence and had cooperated with authorities. Nonetheless, the judge sent her to death row saying that she was more culpable because she was the mastermind.
But was she? Before committing suicide, Shallenberger cast doubt on her dominant role in the crime. In an editorial in the Washington Post, author John Grisham wrote that in the sworn affidavit from a private investigator, "Shallenberger described Lewis as not very bright and as someone who could easily be duped into a scheme to kill her husband and stepson for money. According to the investigator, Shallenberger said, 'From the moment I met her, I knew she was someone who could be easily manipulated. From the moment I met her I had a plan for how I could use her to get some money.'"
Shallenberger wanted cash to set up a drug distribution ring and become an accomplished hitman. In a 2003 letter, he wrote: "I met Teresa in a Walmart in Danville, Virginia. From the moment I met her I knew she was someone who could be easily manipulated. Killing Julian and Charles Lewis was entirely my idea. I needed money and Teresa was an easy target."
In a 2004 affidavit, Fuller corroborated that statement: "As between Mrs. Lewis and Shallenberger, Shallenberger was definitely the one in charge of things, not Mrs. Lewis."
3. Teresa Lewis is borderline for mental retardation
Her IQ, tested once at 73 and a second time of 70, places her just above the threshold where the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision would have prohibited her execution. Nonetheless, it is still low enough to indicate that she did not have the mental capacity to plan and execute the scheme. "She does not have the basic skills necessary to organize and lead a conspiracy to commit murder for hire," Grisham wrote.
In addition to her intellectual limitations, three different psychology experts have declared Lewis suffers from "dependent personality disorder," making it difficult for her to carry out even the simplest daily tasks without help. On top of that, Grisham added, a long list of physical ailments, enabled her to develop "an addiction to pain medications and this adversely affected her judgment."
No one is advocating for Teresa's release for prison. They are calling for the commutation of her sentence from death to life. In addition to John Grisham, her clemency plea is supported by Amnesty International, Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights and a number of Christian groups, including the one led by long-time prison chaplain the Reverend Lynn Litchfield.
Governor Bob McDonnell recently refused to give Teresa a stay of execution. All that stands between her and death is a last-minute appeal to the Supreme Court.