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A Misidentified "Mastermind"

Teresa Lewis may become the first woman executed in the state of Virginia since the electrocution of Virginia Christian in 1912.
Rebecca McCray,
Former Managing Editor,
American Civil Liberties Union
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September 14, 2010

On September 23, Teresa Lewis, a mentally disabled individual, is slated to become the first woman executed in the state of Virginia since the electrocution of Virginia Christian in 1912. Accused of hiring Matthew Shallenberger and Rodney Fuller to kill her husband and stepson, Lewis pleaded guilty in 2002 and received a death sentence, while the two men responsible for carrying out the murders were sentenced to life in prison. Judge Charles Strauss explained the disparity in their sentences by identifying her as the “head of the serpent” in the operation. It’s not just the differing sentences that perturbs — Teresa Lewis has been classified as borderline mentally disabled by two separate mental health experts. Yet Judge Strauss didn’t take into account the vast difference in intellectual abilities between herself and the men who killed her husband and stepson. Lewis’ sentence is yet another example of the unjust distribution and application of the death penalty. We urge you to send this letter to Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell asking him to commute Lewis’ death sentence to life in prison.

After her 2002 trial, Lewis was subject to two IQ tests. On the first, she scored 73. A post-conviction test administered by a commonwealth psychologist resulted in a score of 70 in the fall of 2005. A person with a score between 70 and 75 can be considered mentally retarded. Given Lewis’ test results, it is difficult to fathom that she is truly the crafty “serpent” Judge Strauss identified her to be. Also unearthed after the trial was a letter written by Shallenberger, explaining that “The only reason I had sex with [Teresa] was for the money. To get her to “fall in love” with me so she would give me the insurance money.” The addition of this letter to Lewis’ case neatly highlights the proactive role Shallenberger played in their plot. Mentally disabled and dependent, Lewis was uniquely vulnerable to Shallenberger’s scheme.

James Rocap III has been representing Lewis since July of 2004. Last month, he formally submitted a petition for clemency to Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who will be making a final decision on the fate of her sentence by September 18.

In an interview with the ACLU, Rocap said, “All this evidence we now have, coupled with expert testimony, shows she couldn’t possibly be the ‘mastermind’ behind the deaths of her husband and stepson.” Yes, the Virginia Supreme Court described Lewis, whose IQ places her in the zone of borderline intellectual function, as a criminal “mastermind.” But as Lynn Litchfield, the former chaplain at the prison described in a recent article in Newsweek, Lewis “seemed slow and overly eager to please — an easy mark, in other words, for a con.” Though she went along with the plan and has accepted full responsibility for her actions, it seems impossible that a woman of her mental capacity could formulate (much less carry out) a complex plot to kill her husband and stepson for some fast cash. As Rocap states, this is a “very good example of why the death penalty can be so indiscriminate in its applications.”

Lewis has been confined in the segregation unit of the Fluvanna Correctional Institute for Women since June 3, 2003. Despite her inability to see or interact with the general population of Fluvanna face-to-face, she has counseled and ministered to them through air vents and the slot in her cell’s door. Her empathy and kindness have been documented in letters from former and current inmates sent to Teresa’s lawyers, available to the public on Lewis’ website. In one letter, inmate Jamilah Smith recounted the number of women who regularly visited Teresa in segregation, going to visit her whenever possible to remind her that she is loved and thought of.

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

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