A Woman Dies

When Teresa Lewis was executed on Sept. 23, she became the first woman to be put to death in Virginia in almost a century. A 41-year-old woman who was borderline retarded, with an IQ of 72, she had married her job supervisor at a textile factory. Her adult stepson in the U.S. Army Reserve took out a $250,000 life insurance policy when he was called to active duty, and he named his father as the beneficiary. Teresa schemed with two young men to kill both father and son for the life insurance. The murder took place in 2002, when her two accomplices, armed with shotguns, entered her trailer and shot both husband and stepson in their beds.

Her supporters did not dispute her guilt, nor did she, but they emphasized her mental limitations in an effort to persuade Gov. Robert McDonnell to commute the sentence to life in prison. The Supreme Court had ruled in 2002 in another Virginia case, Atkins v. Virginia, that it is unlawful to execute anyone with mental retardation. The widely accepted measure for that condition is an IQ of 70 or less. But accuracy in judging such matters is rough at best, with a considerable margin for error. During the appeals process, two psychiatric experts who examined Ms. Lewis said that she did not have the mental acuity to plan such a murder for hire. Eventually, the case went to the Supreme Court in an effort to block the execution, but the justices declined to halt it.


The European Union asked the governor to commute Ms. Lewis’s sentence to life because of her mental status, but again the request was denied. The E.U. ambassador to the United States wrote that the union “considers the execution of people with mental disorders of all types contrary to minimal standards of human rights.” The union’s action shows that western European countries, which have abandoned capital punishment, take disapproving notice of its continuing use in the United States—not least in Virginia, which is second only to Texas in the number of executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. But the larger question remains: How much longer will the United States continue to make use of capital punishment? Its inequities are evident. Among the 35 states that permit it, there are many differences in how it is applied. A murder in one state might result in its use, for example, while the same crime in another state would not.

Inadequate legal representation for prisoners from low-income backgrounds is another cause for concern in implementing capital punishment. Over 90 percent of those on death row could not afford their own attorney and had to rely on court-appointed lawyers or public defenders, who frequently have little experience and few resources for handling capital cases. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said, “People who are well represented do not get the death penalty.”

According to Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, Teresa Lewis had a court-appointed attorney who chose not to present the case before a jury, from which she might have obtained clemency. “She was not well represented,” Mr. Dieter said, since evidence of her mental disability was not fully brought out, nor were all the mitigating circumstances presented. One co-defendant, who committed suicide in prison, admitted to having been the mastermind of the crime. The second defendant received not the death penalty, but life without parole. Ms. Lewis’s appeals lawyers later did a thorough job, Mr. Dieter said, in terms of additional psychological testing and further mitigating evidence, such as a letter from one of the gunmen admitting he was the driving force behind the crime, and a more thorough analysis of Ms. Lewis’s mental problems. “If placed before a jury, it is very possible that at least one juror would have found this mitigating evidence sufficient to give a life sentence,” he said, adding, “but by then it was too late.”

The late Justice Harry Blackmun, who at one time supported capital punishment, said before his retirement that carrying it out “remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice and mistakes.” For Teresa Lewis, the issue of mental competency should have led at most to life without parole rather than death. Clemency was called for. Those who knew her in prison spoke of how she had comforted other prisoners, singing and praying with them. Her appeals lawyer, James E. Rocap III, said of her after the execution: “Tonight the death machine exterminated the beautiful, childlike and loving spirit of Teresa Lewis.”

Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” emphasized the church’s opposition to the death penalty. It is permissible, he wrote, only in cases of absolute necessity, “when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” He added that “such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” Certainly imprisonment was available as a sure remedy in the case of Teresa Lewis.

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Mike Evans
7 years 12 months ago
And so may we ask, what was accomplished by killing this woman? Deterrent to other low IQ folk? Or is it just state vengeance because we can. We can also be ashamed.
Bernard Geisler
7 years 12 months ago

What is this common American need for vengeance? Why can't it be left for God to sort this out after she dies a natural death?

I wonder about the morality of executing prisoners and by being executed they are denied the time to reconcile with God and ask for forgiveness.

How would you explain yourself to your Maker when your judgment comes, knowing you are complicit in cuttting a prisoners life short, denied the time for redemption.

I don't remember Jesus being a proponent of the death penalty.
Thomas Davis, Colonel, USA(ret)
7 years 12 months ago
I should like to remind, respectfully, those who are under the impression that the Bible does not concur in the death penalty, are very badly mistaken. There are numerous passages in the bible that the death penalty is to be the penalty for certain crimes. Following are examples. The Old Testament law commanded the death penalty for various acts:

murder (Exodus 21:12), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), bestiality (Exodus 22:19), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13), being a false prophet (Deuteronomy 13:5), prostitution and rape (Deuteronomy 22:4), and several other crimes. However, God often showed mercy when the death penalty was due. David committed adultery and murder, yet God did not demand his life be taken (2 Samuel 11:1-5, 14-17; 2 Samuel 12:13). Ultimately, every sin we commit should result in the death penalty because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Thankfully, God demonstrates His love for us in not condemning us (Romans 5:8).
Joan Bartolomei
7 years 12 months ago
The injustice of this case cannot be overstated.  It troubles me that so many do not see the death penality as a Pro Life issue.  I am proud to live in a state that had the humanity and courage to abolish the death penality.
Christopher Kuczynski
7 years 11 months ago

Anyone who believes that what we can know about God's understanding of justice must inform our own would have to admit that capital punishment is a travesty and a grievous sin.  For at the very time that he was being crucified by those whom the Evangelists tell us acted out of envy, Jesus did not call upon the Father to kill, but to forgive. Yes, to forgive those who never asked for forgiveness; to forgive those with the very knowledge of the scriptures and of his coming that was foretold by the prophets who  nonetheless rejected him because their own ambition caused them to blind themselves to the truth.  

Sadly, we cannot hope for the Supreme Court's intervention on this issue, with five of the court's staunchest proponents of the death penalty also devout Catholics.  (Interestingly, I read recently of a Catholic organization in Maryland that has seen fit to give Justice Antonin Scalia its "Man For All Seasons" award honoring Thomas Moore.)

Finally, an unrelated remark in the nature of a request that America try to use the term "intellectual disability" to describe what was once referred to as "mental retardation" or "mentally retarded."  The term "retardation" and its derivatives have fallen out of favor with the disability community - so much so that recently President Obama signed legislation that would replace the terms "mental retardation," "mentallly retarded," and the like with "intellectual disability" in Federal legislation, regulations, and programs.   I hope my comment doesn't come across as "politically correct" in the wrong sense of that term.  I mean only to suggest that we should refer to a group in the way it chooses to identify itself. 

we vnornm
7 years 11 months ago
Dear Chris,

The use of "mental retardation" in this article reflects on the legal terms used in the case accordinging to Virginia law. An "intellectual disability" can be hundreds of things., ie a genius who cannot read because of letter reversals occurring in the brain, etc. etc.

I believe the court even conceded that Ms. Lewis had a "disability", but this did not meet the specifications of the Commonwealth of Virginia's laws. So saying Ms. Lewis had an "intellectual disability" does not help her case in the least.

As a father of a son with mental retardation, I have no problem with this term. Because this term has a more specific meaning that "intellectual disability", it is helpful in detremining which individuals need higher levels of care and support-ie funding. If this term is taken away, it may be harder for my son and others who have these severe and profound "intellectual disabiliities" to receive funding and help because they will be seen together with those high functioing persons whose disabilities are in "specific areas."

Could you please offer a source for what you have said about President Obama signing legislation converting the term "mental retardation" to "intellectual disability"? I would be very interested. The term mental retardation was part of Public Law 94-146 (94th Congress, 146th piece of major legislation) and was renewed in IDEA legislation in the 1990s. These federal laws have in turn become part of the state education laws in all 50 states. Disbilities such as "mental retardation" or "autism" make children and other persons eligible for higher levels of state and federal funding-sources that are crucial for the person and family's survival. Som as far as I know it's not in the President's job description to undo these major pieces of leglislation with a quick act of the pen.

I know your heart is in the right place by wanting to use what seems as a "kinder" word, but for many of us it's important to know what we are dealing with, and what you might view as "unkind" terms are what our children require for the expensive services that no family can provide on its own.

Thank you for your concern about Teresa. I wrote about her situation here on the AMERICA blog the day before she was executed (http://www.americamagazine.org/blog/entry.cfm?blog_id=2&entry_id=3330) and was also in contact with her lawyer and with the Papal Nuncio in Washington. Let us all watch to see if other situations like this come up.

Thank you. bill van ornum
Christopher Kuczynski
7 years 11 months ago

thanks very much for your comment.  Here is a link to a site that has some information on the federal legislation I mentioned in my previous post:  http://blog.govdelivery.com/usodep/2010/10/president-obama-signs-rosas-law.html. Certainly, I would be concerned about the effect that changing a term would have on those who ought rightly to be entitled to services.  I think the legislation is intended to avoid that by changing the terms used in any legislation that provides such services.  It's my understanding that, as used in federal legislation, the term "intellectual disability" is intended to be synonymous with the term "mental retardation," although it's easy to see how the term "intellectual disability" may seem to suggest a broader group of disabilities.  I do think it will take some time to get used to the new terminology - to understand, for example, that intellectual disability is not intended to include what we understand as learning disabilities.  I have been using this term in presentations I regularly make on the Americans with Disabilities Act for at least the past five years, and my experience has shown me that the groups that I have been talking to really have begun to accept the new term.  One of the things that I've found helpful when using the term in writing is to include a parenthetical that says "formerly called "mental retardation," since the meaning of the term "intellectual disability" won't be obvious to most readers right now.

I certainly hope, too, that I did not come off as overly sensitive.  As far as I'm concerned, someone can use the term "handicapped" and understand more about disability rights than someone who uses the term "person with a disability," and I have no doubt at all that America's editors fully respect the rights of individuals with intellectual disabilities as persons created in the image and likeness of God.  I do think, though, that we should prefer terms that are derived from an affected community's identity, while terms that are essentially created by people outside the disability community (such as "physically challenged") are to be scrupulously avoided.  
Jack Owens
7 years 11 months ago
Capital punishment is barbaric and unChristian, despite what one may find in Romans to summon up a rationale for its continued practice. Capital punishment should have ended with the crucifiction of Christ.  It seems that simple when you consider Christ's teachings and the primary purpose of his death was so that we all can live.    
Paul Austin
7 years 11 months ago
I posted a very detailed account of the horrific crimes committed by Teresa Lewis and they were excised from the site.  This is not right and it is one of the worst forms of censorship.  I took me two hours to research and compose that response and now all my hard work as gone to naught.  Ms Lewis was NO INNOCENT victim in this affair.  She was the mastermind and the 'head of the serpent,' as the trial Judge truly noted.  YOUR SYMPATHIES are misplaced.
Mary Therese LEMANEK
7 years 11 months ago
While the OT does hold references to killing as an acceptable response to being harmed,  it is not the message of Jesus.  We can objectively condemn all sorts of behaviors but are ultimately clueless as to the inner live of the individual.   Our call is to see as God sees which is with the eyes of love and mercy. The "consistent ethic of life" is about protecting all life; not just that which we deem to be worthy.  
7 years 11 months ago
Two thoughts: first, I'm always distressed by the use of the biblical text (particularly the Hebrew Scriptures) to promote violence against anyone.  As a Christian, I also find troubling the use of the Hebrew Scriptures by another Christian as a kind of warrant for one's Christian position.  I find it incredible that people who claim Jesus as their "personal Lord and Savior" can so easily dismiss his own response to the people who were torturing him to death.  He prayed for their forgiveness (cf. Luke 23:34).  I'm not advocating forGETfulness; but I can't draw from the witness of our Lord's life any justification for the premeditated killing of a person who killed someone else.

Second, in these times when the ultra-montane impulse of papal integralism seems to be in ascendance, is it not a bit of a conundrum that so many Roman Catholics in that particular community of the Church who heartily endorse capital punishment are so easily dismissive of papal pronouncements on this issue?  "Conservative" indeed.

we vnornm
7 years 11 months ago
Dear Paul:

Your thoughts are noted and understood. Ms. Lewis received the benefit of American justice at a level which probably wouldn't be found elsewhere in the world, and you are correct in the judge's final assessment, which should give everyone note of the horrendous nature of the crime.

You are correct, also, that many times there is misplaced sympathy in situations like this.

There is currently a case in the State of Florida in which a couple was murdered in front of their special needs children. A situation like this may give many Catholics who are against the death penalty pause.

I have posted further opinion today,


I suspect you are in disagreement of my thoughts, but there are two very compelling sides in these discussions, and your thoughts reflect those of the judge, jury, and appeals process.

thank you.

william van ornum
we vnornm
7 years 11 months ago
Dear Paul,

Sometimes the use of just a first name makes a response "Anonymous" and this can lead to lots of unintended unpleasantries; can you please use your full name in future responses? tx bill
Teddy Morrison
3 years 4 months ago
There are a lot of isolated incidents around the world happening right in front of the people but most of them are kept hidden or not remembered for a reason or due to fear that consumes the witness too. Google and you will see a lot. :::: residential cleaning service


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