Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Killing Teresa Lewis

Barring a gubernatorial change of mind or a judicial intervention, we the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia will be putting Teresa Lewis to death tomorrow night. Of course, we in the Commonwealth have terminated the lives of lots of people both before and after the Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment was not unconstitutional in 1976. So what’s so special about Teresa Lewis? Well, she is the first woman we have killed since Virginia Christian took her last seat in our electric chair in 1912. And that has been the thing that has been getting the most attention—the fact that we are terminating a woman. Style Weekly even had a cover with pictures of the two women and a lead article entitled “Blood Sisters.” That is not why I am writing.

So, what did Teresa Lewis do to merit our killing her? According to the record, Teresa seduced and induced two men, Rodney Fuller and Matthew Shallenberger, to kill her husband and his son so they could collect his life insurance. Fuller and Shallenberger used shotguns to kill the two men while they slept on October 30, 2002. The plot went awry and all were caught. The court sentenced Fuller and Shallenberger to sentences of life in prison, but sentenced Teresa Lewis to death as the “mastermind” of the plot. During the various appeals of Teresa’s sentence it has been argued that in a prison letter Shellenberger claimed that he, not Teresa, instigated the plot. It has also been argued that Teresa, whose IQ tests in the low 70s, is not intelligent enough to have masterminded the plot. I am not writing because of these claims.

Reader, you must know that this maven is not a proponent of the death penalty. (If you have a lot of free time, see 1 ). I’m not going to reargue that. What Teresa Lewis’ pending termination leads me to talk about is the arbitrariness and unfair way in which the death penalty is administered in the Commonwealth. To me the most troubling thing about Teresa Lewis’ case is that she confessed and pleaded guilty to the two capital murder charges that will result in her death. No jury has ever heard this case.

Usually, to impose the death penalty in Virginia three entities need to agree to it—the Commonwealth Attorney, the jury and the judge. Because of her guilty pleas, Teresa Lewis never benefited from trial by jury. The issue that bothers me is why Teresa Lewis’ attorney—I assume she had one— would allow her to plead guilty to capital charges. Did s/he, or the police, or the Commonwealth Attorney, or the judge ever explain to Teresa Lewis that she could receive the death penalty for pleading guilty? Did Teresa Lewis, with an IQ barely above what could be classified as mentally retarded, really understand that she would die because of her guilty plea? And, if Teresa Lewis had pleaded “not guilty” to these charges, who knows what might have happened at trial?

Yesterday, the Richmond Times-Dispatch used most of its cover page to talk about murders and penalties. In the right column was Teresa Lewis’ story. On the left, covering nearly two-thirds of the cover was an article with this headline: “McCroskey gets life term in four Farmville slayings.” For those of you with a short memory, it was only about a year ago that Sam McCroskey bludgeoned four people to death, including a professor at Longwood University. Now, for this rather grisly crime, Sam McCroskey will spend the rest of his life as a guest of the Commonwealth’s Department of Corrections.

So, what do these cases have in common, other than sharing the front page of the TD’s September 21, 2010 issue? Teresa Lewis pleaded guilty to capital murder and will die tomorrow. Sam McCroskey pleaded guilty to capital murder and will never have to worry about the death penalty. Was Teresa’s crime any worse than Sam’s? I don’t think so. Was Sam just lucky to have a “soft-on-crime” Commonwealth’s Attorney prosecuting his case? I don’t think so. Did Sam have a better attorney than Teresa? I’ll let you answer that one, trusted reader.

The difference in treatment of Teresa Lewis and Sam McCroskey argues strongly for a reevaluation of the death penalty in Virginia and how we administer it. I hope the members of the Senate and House of Delegates are listening.


Anonymous said...

Lewis did, in fact, have legal defense in 2002. Her own daughter served time because she knew about the plot but didn't tell. "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime" should also include the caveat that Capital Punishment Is Alive and Well in our beautiful Commonwealth of Virginia.

Simon said...

The whole thing is childish.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this.