U.S. Supreme Court rejects the appeal of a woman on Virginia's death row

The Rev. Lynn Litchfield, former chaplain at Virginia's Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, is among the people trying to convince Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) to spare the life of a woman facing execution on Sept. 23.
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 9:05 PM

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to halt the execution of a Virginia woman who planned the murders of her husband and stepson, meaning that the state is almost certain to execute its first woman in nearly a century.

Teresa Lewis, 41, admitted that she plotted the 2002 killings of her husband, Julian Lewis, and his son, Charles "C.J." Lewis, to collect insurance money. Lewis is scheduled to die by injection Thursday night.

In a two-paragraph order, the high court said Lewis's application to stay her death sentence was denied.

In recent days, Lewis's supporters have argued that she does not deserve to die because she is borderline mentally retarded, with the intellectual ability of about a 13-year-old, and had been used by a much smarter conspirator. It is unfair, they said, that she was condemned to death while the two men who fired the shots received life terms.

"We are deeply disappointed," Lewis's attorney, James Rocap, said Tuesday night. "A good and decent person is about to lose her life because of a system that is badly broken."

Prosecutors and police have said that although Lewis did not pull the trigger, she was the mastermind of the crime. Lewis gave her conspirators $1,200 to buy weapons and pulled her teenage daughter into the plot, even taking the girl to have sex with one of the killers.

The night of Oct. 30, 2002, Lewis left a door unlocked so the gunmen could slip in and told the police that unknown intruders committed the killings. After the shootings, she waited about half an hour to call 911, while her husband slowly bled to death.

Virginia Gov. Robert M. McDonnell (R), who has supported legislation to expand the use of the death penalty, was unmoved by Lewis's request for clemency and a follow-up plea. Lewis admitted to committing "heinous" crimes, he said in a statement, and no medical expert had determined that she is mentally retarded as defined by Virginia law. It did not matter, McDonnell said in a recent interview, that the accused is a woman.

A woman was last executed in the United States in 2005, when Frances Newton was killed by injection in Texas for the fatal shootings of her husband and two young children. Eleven women have been executed nationwide since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

Victor Streib, an Ohio Northern University law professor who has studied women and the death penalty, said women are less likely than men to be sentenced to death if they are convicted and more likely to have a death sentence overturned.

Streib said he is surprised that Lewis appears headed for the death chamber because of her diminished mental capacity and because she has no history of violence.

"You'd have to say she's the worst case of a woman committing a murder in Virginia in the last century, and I don't think anyone can say that," Streib said.

In 2003, Lewis pleaded guilty to capital murder and was sentenced to death by a judge who called her "the head of this serpent." One shooter, Rodney Fuller, made a deal with prosecutors in return for a life sentence. The judge sentenced the other gunman, Matthew Shallenberger, to life, saying it was only fair because of Fuller's deal.

Shallenberger later told an former girlfriend in a letter that he had used Lewis because he wanted money to go to New York and become a drug dealer. He has since committed suicide in prison.

Lewis, a mother and grandmother, had spent most of her time on death row at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, where she was kept in a segregation wing. She has been moved to the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, which houses Virginia's death chamber.

Lewis's supporters said that, during her seven years in prison, she has expressed deep remorse for her crime and became a counselor to other women.

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