John Grisham: Teresa Lewis didn't pull the trigger. Why is she on death row?

By John Grisham
Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Commonwealth of Virginia already has a serious relationship with its death penalty. In the past three decades, only Texas has executed more inmates. But on Sept. 23, the Old Dominion will enter new territory when it executes a female inmate for the first time in nearly a century.

Her name is Teresa Lewis, she is the only woman on death row at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, and her appeals have all but expired. If she is executed, she will become another glaring example of the unfairness of our death penalty system.

Lewis is not innocent. She confessed to the police, pled guilty to the judge and for almost eight years has expressed profound remorse for her role in two murders.

As with most violent crimes, a recitation of the facts of this case would fill pages; still, a brief summary drawn from news reports, letters and affidavits is useful. In 2002, Lewis, then 33, lived with her second husband in a mobile home in a rural area near Danville. She was having an affair with a man named Matthew Shallenberger, who, though nothing more than a common thug, had ambitions. He was looking for seed money to establish a distribution ring for illicit drugs, but his real dream was to become an accomplished hitman, Mafia-style. He reasoned that if he could build his résumé, his reputation would spread all the way to New York, and he could somehow join the big leagues of contract killing.

Shallenberger had a partner named Rodney Fuller, and it is not clear if he was also afflicted with these grand ideas. What is clear is that the three -- Shallenberger, Fuller and Lewis -- participated in a scheme to kill Lewis's husband for his money. At some point, the plans broadened to include the murder of her 25-year-old stepson, a National Guard member with a life insurance policy.

On the night of Oct. 30, 2002, Lewis left a door unlocked, got into bed with her husband and waited. Shallenberger and Fuller entered through the unlocked door, as planned. Shallenberger blasted the husband with a shotgun while, at the other end of the trailer, Fuller shot the stepson. Needless to say, the crime scenes were gruesome.

Lewis initially claimed that the killings were the work of an intruder, but the authorities suspected otherwise. After being confronted, she broke down, confessed and fingered Shallenberger and Fuller. All three were arrested and charged with capital murder.

Fuller's lawyers were quick off the mark. They realized the futility of a defense and advised their client to cut a deal -- to plead guilty and promise to testify against his two co-conspirators in exchange for life without parole.

Lewis's lawyers likewise wanted no part of a jury trial. The evidence of their client's guilt was overwhelming, and they felt strongly that, after hearing all the facts and seeing the color photos from the crime scene, any jury would be in a hanging mood. They advised Lewis to plead guilty and to take her chances with the trial judge who would determine her sentence. They believed this judge would give her life in prison because he had just sentenced Fuller to the same. Furthermore, Lewis had no criminal record and no history of violence. She had cooperated with the authorities. And no woman had received the death penalty in Virginia since 1912.

But Lewis was sentenced to die.

Up last was Shallenberger, who in the middle of his trial changed his plea to guilty. The trial judge (the same who had sentenced Fuller and Lewis) sentenced him to life in prison. Prosecutors had already promised life to Fuller, and it wouldn't be fair, the judge reasoned, to give one of the triggermen death when the other got life.

The judge's rationale in giving Lewis a death sentence was that she was more culpable than the men, who shot their victims as they slept. The killings were her idea, the judge reasoned; she was the mastermind; she recruited Shallenberger and Fuller to do the dirty work; she wanted the money; and so on.

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