Teresa Lewis: The Rest of the Story

During the past month readers of America followed the pre-execution legal maneuvering to stop the Commonwealth of Virginia from carrying out the death sentence on a woman named Teresa Lewis. Lewis was arguably mentally retarded and initially received poor legal representation; her case was later taken on a pro-bono basis by James Rocap of a white-shoe Washington legal firm. Rocap is a graduate of Nortre Dame University and Georgetown Law School. What you’ve read in America's editorial and in other newspaper accounts about Teresa Lewis is but another manifestation of bias and prejudice toward mentally retarded individuals that has occurred over the past century, frequently in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It is time, as radio announcer Paul Harvey used to say, to know the rest of the story. David Micklos, Director of the Dolan DNA Learning Center, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, has written:

On May 2nd, 1927, the United States Supreme Court upheld the concept of eugenic sterilization for people considered genetically ‘unfit.’ The Court’s decision, delivered by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. included the infamous phrase, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough. Upholding Virginia’s sterilization statute provided the green light for similar laws in 30 states, under which an estimated 65,000 Americans were sterilzed without their consent or that of a family member.


To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the event, the state of Virginia erected a roadside marker in Charlottesville, home town of Carrie Buck, the plaintiff of the Supreme Court case. Carrie, like her mother Emma, had been committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded in Lynchburg, Virginia, at age 17. Carrie and Emma were both judged to be “feebleminded” and promiscuous, primarily because they both had borne children out of wedlock. Carrie’s child, Vivian, was judged to be “feebleminded” at seven months of age. Hence, three generations of “imbeciles” became the “perfect” family for Virginia officials to use as a test case in favor of the eugenic sterilization law enacted in 1924.

Upon reviewing the decision of the Virginia courts in 1927, the United States Supreme Court concurred “that Carrie Buck is the probably potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization...It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Teresa Lewis’s case brings to our attention the history of objectification and dehumanization of persons, particularly those who are mentally retarded. For many years the work of the psychologists who participated in eugenics, such as H.H. Goddard, were excised from psychology textbooks and articles. While at Loyola, studying for the doctoral examinations, a phrase jumped off the page when I was reading a book by Joseph Matarazzo, President of the American Psychological Association: we have taken Goddard out of the textbooks,  Matarazzo wrote. It was only years later when I discovered a moldy book from 1917 by Goddard in a library basement that I realized the point Matarazzo was making earlier, and since then other scholars have conducted serious and extended study on the eugenics movement in Virgina.

In 2002 the Commonwealth of Virginia offered a formal apology for its role in eugenics and in the involuntary sterilizations occurring there--many of them poor, black, or mentally retarded persons--and many of whom, like Carrie Buck, had no “hereditary defects.” Governor Mark Warner stated, “We must remember the Commonwealth’s past mistakes in order to prevent them from reoccurring.” Rose Brooks, a woman who had been forcibly sterilized, helped dedicate a historical marker and said that she thought the Governor’s apology was “pretty good.” Teresa Lewis’s sad fate brings to mind other inequities.

William Van Ornum

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8 years 2 months ago
The editiorial of Nov. 1st and this blog are excellent vehicles for educating the magazine's readers of the needs of the mentally retarded.  And, also the dangers to their very being.  One doesn't have to be paranoid or over-reactive to be very concerned about the threat of eugenics to those who are considered "expendable" in our society.  I see the "lurking of eugenics" in the trial and execution of Teresa Lewis in Virginia and I think it is wise to look at the history of eugenics in the U.S. and compare it to what is happening in our country today. 

In the early 20th century, proponents of eugenics sought to restrict immigration, segregate the races and sterilize thhe e "least fit":  the mentally ill, retarded, handicapped, drunks and paupers.  Proponents included Charles Davenport , Margaret Sanger, Marie Stopes, Theodore Roosevelt and Linus Pauling.  By the time the state laws were repealed over 60,000 Americans had been sterilized..  I'm personally familiar with Minnesota's use of sterilization at the facility for the mentally retarded.  In the 60's while a social worker for Catholic Charities of St. Paul, I had a single, middle-aged woman client who had recently been discharged from that facility.  Her history was tragic:  she was literally dumped, along with her mentally retarded sister, at the facility by their parents, when she was just a child.  While there, she was sterilized just like all the female residents.  Recently, while visiting Marian's sister, a relative discovered that Marian was also institutionalized.  She was subsequently re-tested  and found to have average intelligence.  And Minnesota has for years been considered a "progressive state".  During the time of the sterilizations, the Catholic Church was the major opponent of the laws.

Eugenics went under cover after Hitler's eugenic policies and genocide.  Some of what fueled it in the past:  feelings of racial/cultural supremacy, deep resentment of those supported by "welfare" type entitlements and "progressive" ideas of perfectability of humanity still prevail.  Just consider the philosophy of Peter Singer, a popular professor at Princeton and his utilitarian philosphy which would allow infanticide of disabled children; the outrageous statements of James Watson, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century; the destruction in utero of babies having Down Syndrome and genetic disorders; the promotion of euthanasia using such euphenisms as "compassionate choice", "death with dignity", "quality of life issues".  In economic times such as the present, abortion, euthanasia-the tools of eugenics-can more easily be promoted, even if it seems to be just a "lurking" to begin with.
we vnornm
8 years 2 months ago
Thank, David. Let me know how the Kindle thing works out. I seem to have a harder time scannig quickly on computers or reading for long periods due to the "print" being porous, ie lots of pixels and white space. (Look at a computer screen w magnifying glass sometime.)
Lewis's book must be doing okay if it's in an electronic edition! yeah!!!!!!!
we vnornm
8 years 2 months ago

Thanks. I've been looking at the iPad for awhile...almost bought one on impulse a few months ago.  Maybe this will gve me another reason to purchase one....I hear that it will be easy to read magazines on them....bill
we vnornm
8 years 2 months ago

You've just moved Theodore Roosevelt down on my list of admired persons. I never knew this but when you think about it is would fit in with "survival of the fittest". Nor was I aware of the stances of the other people you mentioned. Sad that a man like Linus Pauling, with so much technical intelligence, and one of the few people to ever win two Nobel Prizes, would ever hold this view. The siutation you mentioned is heartbreaking. It's also interesting that society continues to ferrett out instances of priest abuse way back in the past...yet we are not doing so on this issue of the large numbers of people permanently changed, their bodies defaced.As we note "denial" of the instituional kind in the priesthood issue, why isn't the kind of "denial" that went on with sterilization studied?

Some will respond, "but the laws back in those days allowed sterilization. It was part of the culture back then." To this one might say, "but now we know what is right." (Does this logic sound familiar, and how it is used in one situation and not another?) And what about financial compensation?

For many reasons this topic is worthy of study, and its relevance toward the future is compelling, the implications ominous, especially when persons such as Peter Singer are accorded a visible platform and respect. Imagine being a handicapped person whose condition might fall under Singer's philosophy, having to sit in a classroom and listen to him: is this not bullying of an especially cruel magnitude?

This is one topic where I begin to fear I am becoming too sanctimonious, but when I step back and look at the hard facts, there's a loud suggestion that more needs to be said and done. Perhaps brining this under the "bullying" umbrella is one way to increase awareness.

Thanks for these very astute observations, Janice. best and amdg, bill
we vnornm
8 years 2 months ago

There are so many -isms in the world that I'm sure I don't know most of them. There was a book by CS Lewis called "The Abolition of Man" (persons) whose theme was that a common law and morality could be found among all cultures. I've wanted to re-read it but haven't seen it in any bookstores. Maybe it's not stocked any more due to irrelvance. A very sad thought.
Lots of grey days ahead, hope they are limited to November weather and do not bespeak metophorically for the fate of the world. best, bill
Marie Rehbein
8 years 2 months ago

It's amazing how quickly the pieces posted on this blog end up several pages back.  I had a little trouble following up on your PS, but finally did track down the online version of "The Difference of Man and The Difference It Makes".  I believe you are correct that I would find a discussion of this book interesting, as I read a few pages into the text.  I kept getting stuck on the absence of having DNA data included in determining the the humanness of the theoretical individual.  However, I will read further and look forward to your upcoming discussion.

Thank you for the extra information you provided about how mental retardation is identified.  I would be honored to get a chance to review your textbook.  However, I did take the time to see how many pages it is and how much it weighs, since the last textbook I chose to read was hefty on both counts.

I agree with you that it is valid to question the cultural background of a particluar locale.  I am always surprised by Virginia.  My oldest son goes to college there, and so I know that it is the home of the second oldest institution of higher education in the country.  It is also the home of so many of this country's great statesmen.  However, it also has a mean conservative streak. 

The history you have chosen to highlight might be something that we could view in light of its times.  Virginia in the 1920's might have been keeping up with popular thought in its perspective on eugenic practices - perhaps you discuss that in the textbook. It was certainly in the forefront of eugenics in actually carrying out such an intrusion upon one of its citizens.  The idea that a government has the right dictate what is done to the bodies of its citizens without their consent is, of course, central to the abortion debate, the conservative position being that it does and the liberal position being that it doesn't - but let's not go there.

I would say that if the eugenic sentiment is lurking under the decision to execute Teresa Lewis, then the worst possible thing that could have been done in her defense was to identify her as mentally retarded.  That is not to say that it is not still present in that culture.  However, I tend to think it is more of an extreme law and order mentality that led to this execution.
we vnornm
8 years 2 months ago

Thanks for you further excellent thoughts. They will be helpful if there are any further cases like this in Virginia or elsewhere. I hadn't thought of some of the things you mentioned. If you'd like the book write me at ornum@earthlink.net.
we vnornm
8 years 2 months ago

The kinds of situations you mention overhwlem me when I think about all of the human lives which will be affected. Perhaps there will be more of a role for good old fashioned charity in the future? Perhaps this is a way to circumvent bureaucracy? Or perhaps it is one of those impractical thoughts one gets when trying to help and deal with demoralizaing situations?
Five hundred years.......maybe they should do another version of that movie on this topic, Back to the Future IV.  Glad there's lots of stuff to keep busy with today. best, bill
we vnornm
8 years 2 months ago

It is interesting that your thoughts here are based on practicality, and are therefore very relevant to the issue, very prudent, and very helpful. Your mention of Illinois is a good one, and my growing up years  showed me the role of corruption....er....is it time for a eupehmism here like human frailty? bill
Marie Rehbein
8 years 2 months ago
When I read your article, Bill, against the editorial about the crime and execution, it occurred to me that Virginia has come a long way in its view of the "feebleminded" since it ignored "feeblemindedness" in its sentencing.  However, your point is that the same eugenic sentiment may have been lurking behind the sentencing.

I have not followed the case in detail.  Working only from the editorial, I would be inclined to question how it was that two men became informed of the life insurance policy and who its beneficiary was.  I would also question whether it is not possible that despite getting a low score on an IQ test someone could be resentful and greedy enough to want to commit such a crime even if she is not capable of planning out the details.

Correct me if I am wrong, but IQ tests, I don't think, really manage to reveal the full capacities and limitations of individuals.  I would imagine that if it would be to my greatest benefit, I could fail an IQ test, and given that she was not tested until after she knew failing the test could mean the difference between life and death, it is questionable whether the test had any validity.  Other than that test, was there any basis for claiming that she was "feebleminded"? 

On the other hand, putting anyone to death who would not be an imminent danger to society should he or she be able to escape prison has never been necessary. 
we vnornm
8 years 2 months ago
Hi Marie,

You asked a great question about IQ tests.

IQ tests do not classify a person as "mentally retarded" or "learning diabled" or whatever label is used. It is the psychologist or Committee of Special Education or other group that makes the actual diagnosis, using the test as ONE factor.

An IQ tests is PART OF an assessement-a gathering of all relevant information-by a psychologist. The assessment might include school records, interviews with those who knew the person, employment history, results on other tests (looking for consistency), medical information, and other relevant factors.

In the case of children, federal law (PL 94-142, IDEA, and ensuing laws in 50 states) mandate that, for children, there be at least two INDIVIDUAL (i.e., one on one, not fill in the blanks testing) ASSESSMENT sessions separated by an interval in order to "diagnose" a person as mentally retarded. There also have to be individual adaptive learning assessments administered.

It did not appear from the information available that the full process had occurred with Ms. Lewis. (Maybe it did but was not disclosed in the press?)

Yes, persons can "fail" a test or try to fail an ASSESSMENT-one has to watch for this for claims of disability, workman's comp, and obviously forsenic matters. There are ways an experienced psychologist can watch for this, but of course, one can be fooled.

For most of us, there is no good reason to take an IQ test. It is only when there is a question of a learning problem or a wide variance in "strengths and weaknesses" (for example, after a car accident) that an assessment is done.

Many of us believe that IQ scores over 125 (this is around the 95th percentile) do not correlate with higher capability, that other non-intellectual factors are more important as they interact with whatever the test measures. (As in religion, this is arguable. There is one group where you have to score better than 10,000 others on the test itself to gain admission. MENSA also uses just a test, and the cut-off, I believe, is an IQ of 130 at about the 98th percentile.) I am not a member of either group, so maybe I am not smart enough to offer an opinion?

If you would like a copy of my textbook "Psychological Testing Across the Lifespan" (Prentice Hall, 2008, coauthored with Linda Dunlap and Milton Shore), and promise to write me a review, I'll send you one. You can also obtain "When Your Child Needs Testing" by Milton Shore through inter-library loan at public libraries. In the textbook, we go into the history of eugenics in detail and also explain the many "limits" of the tests themselves, and how they always need to be part of a full "assessment."

The law has to draw the line somewhere, and has to use the imperfect tools available in our society.

And yes, you get my point. I think it fair to question the cultural background of a particular locale, especially when considering whether a fair trial by njury is mpossible when a life is at stake. Unlike other groups who can speak up and defent themselves, the mentally retarded (or whatever pc word one wishes to use) cannot serve as their own advocates and need others to do so form them.

best, bill

ps  Marie...in a few weeks we'll have a discussion on "The Difference in Man and the Difference it Makes." If you haven't read the blog on this, you can go bakc..you might like this discussion


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