Will the U.S. Finally End the Death Penalty?

In the past, abolition efforts have faced a backlash—but Gavin Newsom’s moratorium may be different.
The American death penalty is extraordinarily fragile, with death sentences and executions on the decline. Public support for the death penalty has diminished. The practice is increasingly marginalized around the world. California, with its disproportionately large share of American death-row inmates, announces an end to the death penalty. The year? 1972. That’s when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty inconsistent with the state’s constitutional prohibition of cruel or unusual punishments—only to have the death penalty restored a year later through popular initiative and legislation.
On Wednesday, again, California walked back its commitment to the death penalty. Though not full-fledged abolition, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on capital punishment lasting as long as his tenure in office, insisting that the California death penalty has been an “abject…

Teresa Lewis, Virginia Woman With Borderline Mental Retardation Faces Execution

Teresa Lewis
First Woman in Virginia to be Executed in Nearly a Century

Teresa Lewis, a woman diagnosed with borderline mental retardation, is scheduled to be the 1st woman executed in Virginia since 1912, unless Governor Robert McDonell or the U.S. Supreme Court step in.

Legal experts debate whether prosecutors should seek the death penalty. According to court records, in 2002, Lewis participated in a plan with 2 hitmen to kill her husband and stepson in order to get a life insurance payout. Lewis stood in another room, as Matthew J. Shallenberger and Rodney L. Fuller shot Julian Lewis and his son C.J., at close range.

After the hitmen fled, Lewis waited 45 minutes while her husband lay dying, before calling the police. She claimed that an unknown intruder had shot the men.

When sheriff's deputies arrived on the scene Julian Lewis told them, "My wife knows who done this do me." He died soon after.

Teresa Lewis eventually pled guilty to her role in the plan. In court, she apologized to the judge for her actions saying she was "truly sorry, from the bottom of my heart."

Shallenberger and Fuller were sentenced to life in prison. But the trial judge found that Lewis was the mastermind behind the crimes and sentenced her to death. The judge pointed out that after her husband was shot, Lewis went to his room and searched his pants for money. The judge found that Lewis' conduct "fits the definition of the outrageous or wantonly vile, horrible act."

But lawyers for Lewis, who appealed her sentence, have argued that new evidence has come to light that provides more information about Lewis' role in the crimes and that her original lawyers provided her with ineffective counsel because they didn't fully explore the ramifications of her low IQ. Lewis was tested by a board ceritifed forensic psychiatrist who found her IQ to be in the "borderline range " of intellectual functioning, but not at the level of mental retardation.

Those claims have been rejected by the Virginia Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. Now her lawyers have filed a petition for clemency with the Governor and an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We think Teresa has an extremely strong case for clemency because evidence has been developed that no court has looked at before, " said James E. Rocap III, a lawyer for Lewis.

Rocap points to statements from Shallenberger , after his conviction, suggesting that he was the mastermind of the plot, not Lewis.

"The evidence shows without a doubt that Teresa was being used by Shallenberger," said Rocap. "Teresa has never engaged in any violent activity throughout her life, she has an exemplorary prison record , deep remorse, and we think it is simply not right for the triggerman to get life, while Teresa is facing the death penalty."

The case also raises an ongoing discussion in the legal community about the issue of mental retardation. In 2002 the U.S. Surpeme Court forbid the execution of the mentally retarded.

Richard Dieter, the executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center which opposes the death penalty says that because Lewis is on the borderline of mental retardation the Governor should step in. "It would be grossly unfair," he said, "if the one person among those involved who is probably the least danger to society, who is certainly no more guilty than those who carried out the murders, and whose disabilities call out for mercy, is the only person scheduled to die for this crime."

Lewis was found to have an IQ of 72. In Virginia, 70 is the number used to determine mental retardation, among other factors.

Elisabeth Semel , Director of the Death Penalty Clinic at Berkley Law, questions the use of absolute numbers to determine someone's level of mental retardation. "So many factors can contribute to the reliability or unreliability of a numerical score. " she said. "If you have this absolute as a number you can't take into account how severely intellectually disabled someone might be."

But victim's rights advocate Kent S. Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation said, "Simply being on the slow end of the intellectual scale, but not retarded is not by itself, a compelling reason to overturn the death penalty."

Lewis' appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is further complicated by Virginia law that sets execution dates before the Supreme Court decides whether it will take a case.

Lewis is scheduled to die on September 23rd, and under normal circumstances the high court would only consider her case on September 27th. Rocap has filed an emergency application asking the Court to suspend her execution until the court can decide whether to take the case.

There are currently 61 women on death row. Only 12 have been put to death since 1976.

Source: ABC News, September 9, 2010

Virginia to execute mentally disabled woman

Teresa Lewis, charged with masterminding the murder of her husband and stepson, will be executed in Virginia in September, 2010.Virginia is slated to execute a borderline mentally disabled woman who pleaded guilty to masterminding the murder of her husband and stepson in 2002.

Teresa Lewis was charged with hiring 2 men Matthew Shallenberger and Rodney Fuller to kill her husband and stepson so that she could collect USD 350,000 of life insurance.

Lewis offered herself and her 16-year-old daughter to the two hitmen and covered the payment for the purchase of the assault weapon used.

Judge Charles Strauss gave the two triggermen life sentences, but condemned 40-year-old Lewis to death. She has already lost one appeal and is set to be executed on September 23 as the first woman to be put to death in Virginia in almost a century.

New evidence, however, has raised doubts about the fairness of the verdict. Lewis took two IQ tests after the trial, both of which placed her in the "borderline intellectual functioning" zone.

Forensic psychology experts also testified that Lewis has "dependent personality disorder," and is unable to carry out functions as simple as making a grocery list by herself, the Huffington Post reported.

In 2003, Shallenberger wrote to a fellow inmate that he had manipulated Lewis so that he could use the money to start a drug business in New York City.

Shallenberger committed suicide in prison three years later and Lewis' defense team has not been able to use the letter as evidence.

Lewis' chaplain at the maximum-security prison in Virginia also describes her as "slow and overly eager to please -- an easy mark, in other words, for a con."

"She didn't look like a remorseless killer, a 'mastermind' who plotted two murders, as the judge put it," Lynn Litchfield writes in a recent Newsweek article.

"In one of our sessions, she collapsed into great soul-shattering, body-heaving sobs and cried into my wrist, the only part of me I could get through the slot in the door."

Lewis' pro bono defense lawyer said her behavior on death row has been exemplary and should be considered when her petition is reviewed for clemency.

"Since she went to prison, she has been not only a model prisoner, but she has a huge amount of remorse and has developed a prison ministry under very harsh conditions," James Rocap told the Huffington Post.

"This is one of the better examples of what is wrong with the death penalty," he added.

"Because of the death penalty in Virginia, we have a remarkable individual who did not have any violent record at all being judged on her participation in one event in one day of her life."

Rocap said he took on the case because he believes the US justice system is flawed when it comes to the death penalty.

"The legal system for the most serious sanction you can possibly have doesn't operate well," he added.

"There is so much serendipity in what happens to people who do the same thing or even worse things than other people. There's so much inconsistency in who gets executed and who doesn't. I think it's important for the legal profession that we provide the most legal representation we can for people who are in danger of losing their lives."

The United States is among the countries with the highest number of executions.

The US courts condemned 37 convicts to death in 2008 and 52 convicts in 2009, 1 of whom was executed by the electric chair in Virginia.

The largest mass execution in American history was in 1862 when 38 people, convicted of murder and rape during the Dakota War, were hanged.

Source: PressTV, September 9, 2010

New Picture Has Emerged of Woman Facing Imminent Execution in Virginia

"Mastermind" of Crime Was in Reality Led Along by Actual Killers Who Received Lesser Sentences

Unless the governor or the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, Teresa Lewis will be put to death on September 23 in Virginia, the first woman to be executed in that state in a century. But the woman whom the sentencing judge assumed was the mastermind in the murders of her husband and adult stepson now has been shown to be a simpler person who was readily led by others and the target of a scam by an ambitious hitman. Ms. Lewis has taken full responsibility for her role in the crime, but was probably less culpable than the two men who used her and actually carried out the killings. Those men were given life sentences, while Lewis pleaded guilty and received a death sentence.

"The issue in this case," said Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, "is not that Teresa Lewis is a woman and should be treated differently. But it would be grossly unfair if the one person among those involved who is probably the least danger to society, who is certainly no more guilty than those who carried out the murders, and whose disabilities call out for mercy, is the only person scheduled to die for this crime."

Teresa Lewis has an IQ of 72, close to the level of intellectual disability that would exempt her from the death penalty. She has been diagnosed with a dependent personality disorder that meant she looked to others for help and direction, and she was addicted to prescription drugs at the time of the crime. At a very low time in her life following the death of her mother, Matthew Shallenberger (IQ 113) and Rodney Fuller became her acquaintances, and she followed their suggestions in planning a crime to gain insurance money. But far from being the ringleader, Lewis was more of a pawn, as a letter from Shallenberger to a girlfriend indicates. He wrote that he considered his romantic involvement with Teresa “just part of what had to be done to get the money” and that she was “just 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 [sic] for me.” (Shallenberger later committed suicide in prison.)

A psychologist who interviewed Shallenberger reported that he “boasted of dreams of becoming a 'hitman' for the Mafia." Teresa, on the other hand, bungled attempts to retrieve her husband's cash and insurance after the murder, including presenting an obviously forged check to the bank. When she was questioned by police, she could not tell a straight story and quickly confessed her involvement, alerting police to Shallenberger and Fuller.

Rodney Fuller, Shallenberger's accomplice in the murders, agreed that Teresa was a follower, not a leader: “It seemed to me that Mrs. Lewis would do just about anything Shallenberger asked her to do. As between Mrs. Lewis and Shallenberger, Shallenberger was definitely the one in charge of things, not Mrs. Lewis.”

Since being sent to death row, Teresa Lewis has been remorseful and a model inmate. A prison chaplain noted that Teresa held steadfastly to her faith and shared her love and support with women in the cells around her. Prison officials have talked about her singing hymns in her cell that calmed the entire wing.

Lynn Litchfield, the former chaplain in Virginia where Lewis is being held, recently described her in Newsweek's "My Turn" section:
Teresa seemed meek, almost pliant. When I hugged her—the only hug we ever shared—she was so grateful. She didn’t look like a remorseless killer, a “mastermind” who plotted two murders, as the judge put it (her original lawyers did little to dispute this image). In one of our sessions, she collapsed into great soul-shattering, body-heaving sobs and cried into my wrist, the only part of me I could get through the slot in the door.

In addition to a clemency petition to Governor Robert McDonnell, Lewis's lawyers have asked the Supreme Court for a stay of execution while it considers her legal petition. Virginia sets execution dates before the Supreme Court decides whether it will take a case, making a petition for a stay necessary so the Court can give reasonable consideration to her issues.

Before the Court, Lewis's attorneys assert that she pleaded guilty in order to allow the judge determine her sentence. Virginia law required that in order to have a judge, rather than a jury, she had to waive her right to a jury throughout the process, including the determination of whether she was eligible for the death penalty. Whether that is a constitutional deprivation of her right to trial is an arguable issue deserving more time.

For further information, contact Lewis's attorney James E. Rocap, III, Steptoe & Johnson, 202-429-8152; jrocap@steptoe.com; or Richard Dieter, Executive Director, Death Penalty Information Center, 202-289-2275; rdieter@deathpeanltyinfo.org. Further information is available on a website devoted to this case www.saveteresalewis.org .

Source: saveteresalewis.org, Sept. 9, 2010

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