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Teresa Lewis Execution Underscores Shocking Unfairness Of Death Penalty

Rebecca McCray,
Managing Editor,
American Civil Liberties Union
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September 23, 2010

Barring a last-minute miracle, 41-year-old Teresa Lewis will be unjustly put to death by lethal injection at 9 p.m. tonight at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va. Her final appeal was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week.

Earlier this month, we wrote about Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s impending opportunity to commute Lewis’ sentence from death to life. Lewis was one part of a three-person operation that concluded with the murders of her husband and stepson in October of 2002. Of the three, she was the only one to receive a death sentence, despite the fact that she was heavily manipulated by a codefendant who preyed upon the fact that she has an IQ in the low 70’s — a person with an IQ score between 70 and 75 can be considered mentally retarded. Further details of her case are available here. On Friday, Gov. McDonnell issued a statement in response to her petition for clemency, declining to grant it and concluding he could find “no compelling reason to set aside the sentence that was imposed by the circuit court and affirmed by all reviewing courts.” In light of all the new evidence provided to the governor in the petition, his decision is exceedingly hard to swallow.

Upon receipt of the governor’s decision, James Rocap III, Lewis’s lawyer, refused to give up. He issued a response Monday, once again urging Gov. McDonnell to reconsider. Rocap’s letter asking for reconsideration noted that the governor’s decision “does not address any of the compelling reasons for clemency that have been advanced, including the significant new evidence that none of the courts have previously considered.” Indeed, it is difficult to believe that so severe a conclusion could still be drawn after careful consideration of the newly available information. But McDonnell was unmoved, and on Monday, one of his staffers issued a statement once again refusing to grant clemency.

In his initial rejection, Gov. McDonnell states that “no medical professional has concluded that Teresa Lewis meets the medical or statutory definition of mentally retarded.” This is a highly simplistic evaluation of the information garnered by the professionals who evaluated Lewis over the course of the case. While executive clemency is supposed to serve as the last “fail safe” by preventing a miscarriage of justice if the judicial system has failed to do so, Gov. McDonnel’s decision — looking strictly at numbers (such as an IQ of 70) — reflects a check-the-box, automated mentality not suited to this gravely important task. Gov. McDonnell’s sensitivity to the victims should have extended to Lewis’s own precarious situation and her serious mental illness, beyond her test results. It is the governor’s responsibility to be attentive and discerning in his review of petitions such as this, and in this instance he has failed. His decision not to grant her clemency is unjust, and we hope that you share our outrage.

Teresa Lewis’ execution tonight will be undeniably tragic, and is a prime example of just how deeply flawed our capital punishment system is. Gov. McDonnell’s blatant oversight in his examination of her petition should animate rather than discourage us — her death does not have to be in vain. Though the governor has chosen to disregard the information provided to him, his unfair decision should hasten the pace at which we move to dismantle the death penalty. Let this incident be a reminder that there is no room in our justice system for a penalty that is ultimately so unjust.