Teresa Lewis

In case you haven’t been reading the news, Teresa Wilson Bean Lewis, age 41, was executed under the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia on September 23, 2010, for masterminding the deaths of her husband and stepson.

Leading to the execution, there have been a ton of questions raised stemming from various misconceptions about capital punishment and the crime for which Ms Lewis was executed, starting with this one:

Why Teresa was on death row to begin with? She didn’t pull any trigger, so why is she there?

The various reports of the crime say that Teresa was the mastermind behind the double murder of her husband and stepson, though the murders themselves were carried out by two other gunmen. Under the laws of virtually every jurisdiction under the United States, including the Federal jurisdiction, conspiring to commit a crime that is actually carried out is the same as if you were a direct accomplice. The fact that she conspired in the murders is no different than if she had pulled the trigger herself. The Code of Virginia spells this out1, but I’ll sum up the legalese here as it applies to Teresa Lewis.

In the case of a felony, every accessory before the fact may be tried as if they directly committed the crime. In the cases where the person is an accessory to a capital murder, that person shall be charged with first-degree murder, a Class 2 felony, except in cases where the conspiracy is a murder for hire, such as the case of Teresa Lewis, in which case they shall be tried as if they committed the murder themselves. Capital murder, under Virginia law, is a Class 1 felony, punishable by death.2

That is why she was on death row.

Plus she pled guilty to all charges, including the capital murder charge. Everyone along the entire appeal chain, starting with the Supreme Court of Virginia up to and including the Governor and all Federal courts, upheld the sentence of death.

But she’s a woman!

Equal protection of the law means equal application of the law. Equal application also means equal eligibility for all punishments, including the death penalty.

The gunmen got life, so she should’ve gotten life.

First, Teresa Lewis was deemed to be the mastermind in the plot, not only by the judge at her trial, but also by Governor Robert McDonnell when he reviewed her application for clemency. If you are the mastermind in a plot to kill multiple people, the death penalty is not only warranted, but expected.

Rodney Lamont Fuller struck a deal with prosecutors in exchange for his cooperation, saving himself from death row. Matthew Shallenberger, the other gunman, was sentenced to life out of "fairness". Their sentences have no bearing on whether Lewis is to be on death row, and either gunman could have been sentenced to death while the other was sentenced to life.

She’s mentally challenged, and executing her would violate the mandate of the United States Supreme Court.

The opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), borrowed on the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of mental retardation as being an IQ of 70 or below, basically issuing a blanket restriction on sentences of death of individuals that meet such a definition. Teresa Lewis did not meet the definition. The lowest her IQ has tested, according to published reports, is 72.

Saying she is mentally retarded because her IQ tested at 72, wherein the accepted definition sets the maximum IQ for mental retardation at 70, allows for a slippery slope. What if an offender takes 15 lives but tests to an IQ of 73? The Supreme Court set a limit, and that limit should be honored.

One of the gunmen confessed to being the mastermind.

In a letter addressed to a girlfriend in 2003, Matthew Shallenberger allegedly confessed to being the mastermind, saying he needed the money and found Lewis to be easily manipulated. Shallenberger committed suicide in prison in 2006, and prosecutors dismissed the letter as being manufactured.

Prior to sentencing, evidence establishing Lewis as the mastermind was submitted to the Court. This is what the judge used in establishing the sentence.

Plus affidavits and letters don’t do much to override a prior finding. The evidence submitted showed Lewis to be the mastermind. The Supreme Court of Virginia stated such in their review of the case and punishment:

[Lewis] was the mastermind of these gruesome crimes, which would not have occurred but for her actions.

* * * * *

The facts established by the Court show that Teresa Lewis was the mastermind in this case. That fact appears to not have been openly and properly challenged in a Court of law, probably because the only evidence that contradicts the assertion arose after the trial and after Lewis had been sentenced to death, and is entirely verbal or hearsay. As such, as often happens in a Court of Law, both to the detriment and advantage of defendants, only those facts properly presented to the Court are evaluated to determine the proper sentencing.

Lewis’s death penalty was automatically evaluated by the Supreme Court of Virginia. They affirmed and accepted the facts determined to exist at the Circuit Court. Those facts, the Supreme Court of Virginia would determine, warrant a sentence of death in this case, and such a sentence is not excessive given the facts.

The Governor of Virginia ruled the same, stating in a public statement:3

I find no compelling reason to set aside the sentence that was imposed by the Circuit Court.

This murder was committed for life insurance money, of which Lewis was the sole beneficiary. This means it all came down to her, and she had the power to stop the crime from occurring. She instead chose to facilitate it.

Accordingly, in line with the opinions of the Governor of Virginia and the various courts of appeals that have heard arguments related to this case, I join their opinions that the penalty of death in this case was properly applied.

References   [ + ]