Tomorrow the United States will execute Teresa Lewis, 41, the first woman to be put to death in the last five years, by lethal injection. In 2002, Lewis left the door of her Danville, Virginia, home unlocked so her lover, Matthew Shallenberger, and his companion, Rodney Fuller, could murder her husband and 25-year-old stepson with shotguns she had purchased. Her husband didn’t die immediately after being shot, but Lewis waited 45 minutes before she called the police. Lewis allegedly wanted to kill her family so she could collect life insurance and inheritance; she allegedly offered sex with her 16-year-old daughter if the murderers went through with the killings.
Lewis’ lawyers have claimed that she is borderline mentally retarded, was allegedly addicted to painkillers, and therefore was not an appropriate candidate for the death penalty. Their plea made it all the way to the Supreme Court, but only two of the nine justices — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor — voted to stop the execution. Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell said several psychologists have concluded that Lewis is not mentally retarded and has refused to commute, or stop, the execution.
Not only is Teresa Lewis the first woman to be executed in the U.S. in five years, but she is the first woman to be executed in Virginia in 100 years. Thousands of Virginia citizens have signed a petition to halt her death and even the crime author John Grisham has spoken out on her behalf.
But it’s not the typical anti-death penalty chatter: Slate.com’s Dahlia Lithwick wonders if people are rallying on Lewis’ behalf because of her gender, adding, “If Lewis were a man, her execution would hardly be news.” Of the 1,224 people who have been executed in the United States since 1977, when the death penalty was reinstated, only 11 have been women, Lithwick notes. While men commit more murders than women in general, it could be argued that women are sentenced to death for “sexist reasons,” she writes — the killing of their husband or child, both of which are considered “unnatural” impulses for women.
I don’t think that discussion matters when there are so many other injustices involved with the death penalty. According to 2003 statistics from the American Civil Liberties Union, people of color account for a disproportionate amount — 43 percent — of those executed since the death penalty was reinstated. People of color are also disproportionately represented on the wait list for death row: 55 percent. I urge you to read more from the ACLU about the harrowing statistics regarding race and the death penalty, because I wish those were the public discussions we were having. On the other hand, from a PR standpoint, anti-capital punishment activists are probably happy for any chance they get to bring up this discussion.
All that said, personally, the death penalty is something I am on the fence about. I used to be staunchly against it because I had a brother who was in prison (to be clear, not for killing anyone) and I badly wanted to have faith in human beings that they could change. Then, during my senior year of college, the parents of one of the guys in my then-boyfriend’s band were both murdered in broad daylight. Two drug addicts came into their jewelry store in my hometown, shot them both to death, and ransacked the place. (They were eventually caught days later at a casino.) It was terrible and it occurred to me that if it had been my family members who had been killed, I would have wanted the murderers to be executed. While I don’t want to be for the death penalty because I believe the criminal justice system is racist, I begrudgingly support capital punishment after knowing someone whose innocent parents were senselessly killed.
What are your thoughts on the death penalty? Please keep the conversation respectful in tone and free of name-calling, or else Amelia will get all up in your shizz and enact some commenter capital punishment of her own. [True! -- Editor]