Did Texas execute an innocent man? Film revisits a haunting question.

Texans will have an opportunity to revisit a question that should haunt anyone who believes in the integrity of our criminal justice system: Did our state execute an innocent man? 
The new film “Trial by Fire” tells the true story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was sentenced to death for setting a fire to his home in Corsicana that killed his three young daughters in 1991. The film is based on an investigative story by David Grann that appeared in the New Yorker in 2009, five years after Willingham was executed over his vociferous protestations of innocence.
In my experience of serving 8 years on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and 4 years as a state district judge in Travis County, the Willingham case stands out to me for many of the same reasons it stood out to filmmaker Edward Zwick, who calls it a veritable catalogue of everything that’s wrong with the criminal justice system and, especially, the death penalty. False testimony, junk science, a jailhouse informant, and ineffe…

On death row, Teresa Lewis pleads for her life

Teresa Lewis
In a cinder block prison visiting room, the only woman on the state's death row wept for the men she helped kill. She sang a favorite gospel song, bragged about her baby grandson and fussed over her hair. She described days spent in virtual isolation, reading a worn Bible and watching reality TV.

She also pleaded for her life.

To some, Teresa Lewis (left) is a cold and manipulative mastermind who conspired to have her husband and stepson shot so she could use the insurance money to take up with another man. Others see her as a simple - even childlike - woman with the mental capacity of a 13-year-old who was drawn into a terrible crime by a scheming lover.

If neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) intervenes, Lewis will become the 1st woman executed in Virginia in nearly 100 years and the 12th nationwide since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. Both of her co-conspirators, the men who fired the deadly shots, received life terms. Lewis's execution is scheduled for Sept. 23.

"I didn't pull the trigger, but I did do wrong, and I let 2 people that I love be taken away, and I hurt other people I love very much. I really know that now," Lewis, a 41-year-old mother of 2, said in a recent interview from the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.

"I'm scared to death," she said. "I want to keep living. I don't want to die."

Lewis and her supporters do not argue that she should be freed. But they say evidence has emerged that she was a puppet to a much smarter conspirator. She has reinvented herself as a counselor of sorts, a calming maternal influence to fellow inmates, they say.

"She is a caring person with a deep faith who was pulled into participating in a terrible act that was completely out of character for her," said her attorney, James E. Rocap III.

But Pittsylvania County Commonwealth's Attorney David N. Grimes, who went to the Lewis house the night Julian Clifton Lewis Jr. and Charles "C.J." Lewis were slain, said the punishment is just.

"What she got was fair," Grimes said. "She knew these people loved her, and she used that to set them up. In some ways, it's worse than a stranger. It shows how cold she is."

Since she came to prison 7 years ago, Lewis has lived in the segregation unit because the state has no death row for women. She isn't allowed to attend church services or go to the recreation yard and spends most of her day alone. She lies on the floor of her cell and shouts under the door to talk with other prisoners. Her longtime chaplain said that when things get tense or rowdy, Lewis sings, and it calms the women.

She said she thinks of Julian Lewis and C.J. Lewis every day.

"It hurts to know what I've done," she said. "If I was thinking at all about the situation and who I was hurting, it would never have happened."

'My wife knows'

When police arrived at the Lewis trailer in southern Virginia early on Oct. 30, 2002, Julian Lewis, who had been blasted repeatedly with birdshot in his bed, was curled up on the floor and moaning softly, "Baby, baby, baby, baby."

"My wife knows who did this to me," he told a deputy.

His son, C.J. Lewis, an Army reservist who was visiting before a deployment to Iraq, was dead in another room.

Teresa Lewis was acting strangely. Investigators saw her behavior as callous. She asked deputies for cigarettes and a glass of iced tea she had left in the bedroom. Her account about hiding in the bathroom while the others were killed didn't add up.

Lewis soon acknowledged that she hatched the murder plan with two men she had met at a Wal-Mart. The night of the killings, prosecutors said, she left a door unlocked so the gunmen could slip inside. She gave them cash to buy the weapons. As her husband slowly bled to death, she waited a half-hour or so before calling 911.

Lewis told authorities that she was after her husband's insurance policy and C.J. Lewis's $250,000 policy. She was going to split the cash with her co-conspirator and young lover, Matthew Shallenberger.

The details eventually spilled out. There had been an earlier plot to kill Julian Lewis that failed. Teresa Lewis had drawn her 16-year-old daughter into the plot, even taking the teenager to have sex with the other gunman, 19-year-old Rodney Fuller.

To Grimes, commonwealth's attorney since 1992, there was a cruelty that set these killings apart.

That night, he said, investigators noticed that Lewis had ink on her hand. There was a lunch bag in the refrigerator with a smiley face and a note on it: "I love you. I miss you when you're gone."

Lewis told investigators that she packed it for her husband the night before. Grimes said he thinks otherwise.

"In all likelihood, Julian was just screaming for a half-hour or 45 minutes before she thought he was finally dead and called," Grimes said. "I think part of that time she was sitting at the kitchen table making that bag."

On advice of her attorney, Lewis wouldn't discuss the killings or the plot. But she said she was conflicted.

"I had Jesus telling me not to do it, and I had Satan telling me to do it. That night, my mind was telling me I was not doing anything wrong because I didn't pull the trigger," she said.

"People say, 'God, how could you let this happen to me?' " Lewis said. "I can't say that, because He did try to stop me and I didn't listen."

1912 execution

On Aug. 16, 1912, a 17-year-old servant named Virginia Christian died in the state's electric chair, her punishment for killing her employer, Ida Belote, after Belote accused her of stealing a gold locket. The News Leader, a local newspaper, ran an article with the headline: "Chair Claims First Woman Victim Today."

"Assisted on either side by a prison keeper, detailed for service in the event that she might quail before the sight of the electric chair . . . the 17-year-old negro murderess was led to her death in the state penitentiary at 7:25 o'clock this morning," the article read.

Virginia has not executed a woman since.

Since 1900, 50 women have been executed in the United States, according to the District-based Death Penalty Information Center. As of Jan. 1, there were 61 women sentenced to death - just under 2 percent of the total death row population.

Mary Atwell, a Radford University criminal justice professor who wrote a book about the 11 women who have been executed since 1976, said she thinks that women who are given the death penalty defy conventional notions of a nurturing, caring woman.

"There is a way we expect women to behave, and these women have gone way out of bounds," Atwell said. "In Teresa Lewis's case, she's involved with this young man, it's her husband who's the victim. She's greedy."

A spokesman for McDonnell's office said it's his policy to announce decisions on clemency petitions at least five days before execution dates. The governor has rejected 2 clemecy requests from others that he has considered.

'Head of the serpent'

In May 2003, Lewis admitted her crimes in court, becoming one of the few people to plead guilty to capital murder with no guarantee of a life sentence.

Fuller struck a deal for a life term. Pittsylvania County Circuit Judge Charles J. Strauss gave Shallenberger the same, saying it was only fair.

But in Lewis's case, Strauss handed down a death sentence. He called her "the head of this serpent."

"The defendant lured two other men and her juvenile daughter into this web of deceit and sex and greed and murder," the judge said.

David Furrow, an experienced trial lawyer who represented Lewis, was shocked. He avoided a trial because he thought Lewis had a history of questionable moral choices. She once ran off with her sister's husband, had a "lingerie show" for her co-conspirators and took her daughter to have sex with Fuller, he said.

"I didn't think that would go over in Pittsylvania County," he said.

But Furrow said he thought Strauss, who had seen his share of hardened criminals, would show leniency.

After all, Lewis led police to Shallenberger and Fuller and had no violence in her past. She took responsibility by pleading guilty and expressed remorse.

"You have a judge who has seen bad crime, who is known to be sympathetic and a good judge, who has never given the death penalty before. And you have a woman," Furrow said. "I thought it was the best way to go. It didn't work."

'What I was looking for'

Just a few months later, Shallenberger, who described himself as a gigolo and a top-notch marksman who would someday become a Mafia hit man, wrote to a former girlfriend from prison.

He told her that his relationship with Teresa Lewis was a sham. He wanted to move to New York to sell drugs and saw a way to get some starting-out money.

"She was exactly what I was looking for. Some ugly bitch who married her husband for the money and I knew I could get to fall head over heals for me," Shallenberger wrote. "The only reason I had sex with the mother . . . was so she would give me the insurance money."

Shallenberger, Lewis's supporters say, was the true mastermind.

"I think it's clearly Shallenberger who came up with the idea," Rocap said. "She was duped into believing Shallenberger loved her and that they were going to live together happily after the killings."

Lewis has an IQ of 72, an intellectual capacity that puts her just above the legal definition of mentally retarded. Shallenberger's IQ was 113, which doctors describe as high average, court records say.

Lewis, who was on a host of prescription drugs and had dependent personality disorder, was desperate to please, her supporters say. They say they think that she clumsily followed Shallenberger's orders and didn't comprehend what had been put in motion.

Shallenberger killed himself in prison Aug. 22, 2006.

'2 decent men'

If Lewis dies by lethal injection Sept. 23, Kathy Clifton plans to be there as a witness. >{? "I'm the last," she said.

Clifton is Julian Lewis's daughter and C.J. Lewis's sister. Her brother, Jason, died in a car accident in 2001. Her mother, Joyce Lewis, died of an illness in 2000.

Julian Lewis, a Vietnam veteran and electrician at the Dan River textile plant, was a handyman who brought broken-down cars and furnaces back to life, Clifton said. One time the alternator broke in the family's run-down Buick and there was no money to take it to the garage. So Julian Lewis carried it to the porch and tinkered until it worked again.

C.J. Lewis was a talented musician who played guitar, piano and mandolin. When he was slain, his daughter was 4.

"She took away two decent, God-fearing men," Clifton said. "They had their faults. I don't make them out to be more than they were. But they served their country with honor and respect. We lost a father, a grandfather, friends, a brother."

Clifton said her family was close, with members relying on each other for companionship as they moved during her father's Army career. The family lived in Louisiana, Texas and Germany.

Her mother was often ill, Clifton said, so she became caretaker to C.J. Lewis, the baby of the family. She took him to his first day of school, helped him pick out a tuxedo for the prom and shuttled him to orchestra practice.

Clifton said it is not for her to decide whether Teresa Lewis should live or die.

"I don't want to choose a side, because I don't want to stand back after it is all done and say I should have done this or I should have done that," Clifton said. "What I do believe is you go before the judge, God tells the judge what sentence to give and that's what it should be."

'A real nurturing spirit'

The Rev. Lynn Litchfield met Teresa Lewis the day she arrived in shackles at the prison. From that day on, the chaplain regularly stopped by her cell. She would kneel outside, and they would talk through the slot where food trays are passed.

"I've seen her cry. I've seen her struggle through her nightmares. She wrestles with forgiveness and repentance," Litchfield said. Lewis has become a source of strength for other women, praying with them and singing to them, she said.

"She has a real nurturing spirit about her," Litchfield said, "and perhaps that seems odd given her crime, but people are more than the worst thing they've ever done."

From cell 108, Lewis spends her days writing to pen pals and praying aloud. She watches "Dancing With the Stars," "America's Got Talent" and "I Love Raymond" but avoids police dramas such as "CSI" because they remind her of the murders she committed.

"I tell Jesus every day: If they continue to let me live, the struggle I've been through, my crime, is still going to bring people to Jesus," she said. "I feel I can teach them a lot about my mistakes because God showed me what I've done and what I could have done."

More information: Save Teresa Lewis

Source: Washington Post, September 14, 2010

Most Viewed (Last 7 Days)

Saudi Arabia celebrates end of Ramadan by beheading Asian drug smuggler

Another prisoner executed in Belarus

When We Kill - Everything you think you know about the death penalty is wrong.

Japan's detention center gives foreign media a look

August Execution Set For Florida Killer Who Targeted Gay Men

Saudi Arabia: Authorities must not resort to use of death penalty against protester arrested aged 13

Death sentence for South Carolina man who killed his 5 children and dumped their bodies

Gay rights across the globe: marriage to the death penalty

Louisiana: Death penalty abolitionists increasingly optimistic

One of the ISIS 'Beatles' says he's sorry. Will confessions save these fighters from death row?