Justice, the death penalty and convicted murderer Teresa Lewis
By Dean I Weitzman, Esq. on September 21st, 2010
In 2002, Teresa Lewis conspired with her lover and another man to kill her husband and stepson to collect on a $250,000 life insurance policy.
The guilt of the Pittsylvania County, Va., woman has never been in question.
What has been in dispute, however, is whether she is mentally competent to face the penalty which was handed down against her after her trial – a death sentence.
Lewis, 41, is set to die this Thursday, Sept. 23, by lethal injection in Virginia. She would be the first woman executed in Virginia since 1912.
An appeal is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, which could block her death sentence.
Critics of the impending death sentence have been arguing for months that she is borderline mentally handicapped and that IQ tests done since her trial and conviction have shown that her IQ is in the range of 70 to72. A score in that range is considered “borderline deficient,” according to experts.
If that finding is correct, say her supporters, putting someone to death who is not mentally competent would be a violation of the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment. Her attorneys also argue that she has a personality disorder.
No one has argued that Lewis didn’t participate in the horrific murders of her husband and stepson.
Lewis gained no sympathies from the prosecutor or police. During her trial, they described her as the mastermind of the money-motivated murders, according to news accounts. Prosecutors described during the trial how she gave her two co-conspirators $1,200 in cash to buy guns to commit the crimes and then gave them other assistance, including leaving the door to her house trailer unlocked so they could gain easy entrance.
Lewis’ two co-conspirators, who actually did the shootings on Oct. 30, 2002, were also convicted and given life sentences.
The trial judge declared her to be the “head of this serpent” and handed down the death penalty.
But there is more to the story, her supporters say.
“Lewis’s supporters have argued that she does not deserve to die because she is borderline mentally retarded and was manipulated by a much smarter conspirator,” according to a story last week in The Washington Post. “They say it is unfair that Lewis was sentenced to death while the two men who fired the shots received life sentences.”
Virginia’s governor, Robert F. McDonnell, sees it differently.
In a written statement earlier this week, McDonnell said he will not intervene in the case to block Lewis’ death sentence. He said that he’s seen no evidence turned up during the course of Lewis’ trial or appeals that would make him believe that she is mentally-handicapped.
“Numerous psychiatrists and psychologists have analyzed Lewis, both before and after her sentencing,” the statement said. “After numerous evaluations, no medical professional has concluded that Teresa Lewis meets the medical or statutory definition of mentally retarded. Having carefully reviewed the petition for clemency, the judicial opinions in this case, and other relevant materials, I find no compelling reason to set aside the sentence that was imposed by the Circuit Court and affirmed by all reviewing courts. ”
The question is, then, who is correct?
There are no disputes over the facts of these heinous, cold-blooded murders.
The only issue today in this case surrounds the use of the death penalty, especially when the person who is slated for execution may not be of sound mental health.
In this case, the facts are still hazy and should be carefully reviewed and considered.
Lewis’ attorney, Jim Rocap, told The Roanoke Times recently that Lewis was manipulated into participating in the crimes by her co-conspirators.
“She was easy prey for someone, particularly a man, to take advantage of her and to use her,” Rocap told the paper. “She was not the mastermind, but she was in fact the dupe,” he said, based on new evidence about her mental condition, drug usage and other factors that have arisen since her original trial and appeals.
Others agree that a death sentence in this case would not be a fair and reasonable punishment based on the facts of the case.
Last week, the Richmond-based mental health group, The Arc of Virginia, asked Virginia’s governor to throw out the death penalty and commute Lewis’ sentence to life in prison, or to at least initiate more tests of her mental condition before the sentence is carried out, according to a story in The Richmond Times-Dispatch.
In his letter to the governor, Howard Cullum, the president of Arc of Virginia, wrote that Lewis’ measured IQ scores “placed her in the borderline range of intellectual functioning, but not at or below the level of mental retardation,” according to the Times-Dispatch story. “In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court barred the execution of persons who are mentally retarded. A sufficiently low IQ is only part of what courts consider. The retardation must have been present prior to the age of 18 and the person must have significant limitations in adaptive behavior such as social and everyday living skills.”
What’s needed now, Cullum stated in his letter to the governor, is a “competent professional assessment of her intellectual functioning — including an investigation and evaluation of her adaptive functioning as well as intelligence testing.”
No such comprehensive evaluation has ever been done, he wrote. “Anything less would . . . risk carrying out an improper execution,” Cullum stated.
Amnesty International has also asked Gov. McConnell to change his mind and commute Lewis’ sentence.
In a letter to McConnell last week, Amnesty executive director Larry Cox wrote that “proceeding with this execution would come dangerously close to violating the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits capital punishment for those with ‘mental retardation’ — a precedent established thanks to Atkins v. Virginia.”
Yes, Lewis was fairly convicted of the charges against her and she should be severely punished for what she has done.
But a death sentence in this case may not be fair or just because of her mental capacity.
Without a thorough evaluation of Lewis’ mental condition, justice cannot be assured in this case.
Everyone deserves fair representation, a stout defense and a legal process that is without any question if they are accused and convicted of a crime.
This case must be held at that high level, no matter how much it inconveniences the courts, the prosecutors, or anyone else involved in this case.
Fairness and justice demands it.
The death sentence against convicted murderer Teresa Lewis should be commuted to a life sentence due to the reasonable doubt about her mental condition.