x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Virginia to execute woman for double murder of husband and stepson

Iran accuses US of exercising 'double standards' over use of capital punishment, as the first female in nearly a century faces the death penalty.

The case of Teresa Lewis, 41, left, has elicited an outpouring of sympathy and outrage both at home and abroad. Right, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, was sentenced to death by stoning in Iran for adultery.
The case of Teresa Lewis, 41, left, has elicited an outpouring of sympathy and outrage both at home and abroad. Right, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, was sentenced to death by stoning in Iran for adultery.

ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA // Barring a last-minute clemency, the US state of Virginia will execute its first woman in nearly a century tomorrow. Although no one questions the guilt of Teresa Lewis, 41, who admitted her role in arranging the 2002 murders of her husband and stepson, her case has elicited an outpouring of sympathy and outrage both at home and abroad.

Lewis's sex and the legal questions surrounding her case have ushered in another moment of soul-searching in the only western country that still employs capital punishment. State judicial systems executed 52 convicts last year, placing the United States fifth in the world after Saudi Arabia and before Yemen in its application of the death sentence. That dubious ranking thrust Lewis's small-town murder-for-hire case into the international spotlight this week when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, accused the United States of exercising double standards in its treatment of capital punishment by foreign governments.

Mr Ahmedinejad condemned the "media silence" around Lewis's case yesterday, despite the groundswell of international opprobrium following the 2006 sentencing of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani to death by stoning for adultery and, later, for the murder of her husband. While US opponents of the death penalty rejected Mr Ahmadinejad's comparison - unlike Iranian laws, the US Supreme Court has ruled that capital punishment may be exacted only on convicted murderers - many have called on Americans to re-evaluate their support for capital punishment, which they say is often unevenly applied. Thirty-five US states and the federal government allow for the death penalty.

Stephen Northup, an attorney and a member of the board of directors of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said: "I think her case is a good example of the reality that the vast majority of the people sentenced to death are poorly represented at trial." Mr Northup said the brisk pace of the Virginia judicial system means that juries are sometimes unable to properly consider capital-murder cases.

Virginia has executed 107 people since a national moratorium on the death sentence was lifted in 1976 - a rate second only to Texas, which executed 463 people in the past 34 years. Vincent Callahan, who was a Republican member of the Virginia House of Delegates for 40 years until his retirement in 2008, said: "I don't think that's a position in which we should take any prid. I was in favour of capital punishment at one stage in my political career, but I came around to the idea that we're one of the few western societies that still does it. I say it has no effect on being a deterrent." Lewis's defenders argue that her case presents a particularly strong example of the unequal application in Virginia.

Lewis admitted that she allowed two men, one of whom was her lover, to enter her trailer home one night in October 2002. The men shot and killed Lewis's husband and 25-year-old stepson with the intention of splitting the proceeds of their life-insurance policies with Lewis. All three perpetrators admitted their guilt to a rural Pittsylvania County court, but only Lewis was given the death penalty by a judge who called her "the head of this serpent". Lewis's advocates say her lover and co-conspirator, Matthew Shallenberger, manipulated Lewis, whose IQ of 70 casts serious doubt on her alleged role as the ringleader of a double murder.

"Teresa [Lewis] was not and could not have been the mastermind of this crime," James Rocap III, Lewis's lawyer, said in an interview on Monday. "It is unjust and completely inconsistent with moral decency to execute one person when the other people who were participating in the same crime received a life sentence. It makes no sense." Beyond the fact that Lewis's intelligence level teeters on the edge of mental retardation - a classification that would have rendered her ineligible for the death penalty, according to past Supreme Court decisions - the Virginia governor, Robert McDonnell, has repeatedly refused to commute her sentence to life in prison. Moved by Lewis's story, including her spiritual redemption behind bars, about 4,000 people have sent letters to Mr McDonnell since July asking for clemency. The US Supreme Court is evaluating Lewis's case on constitutional grounds and could conceivably swoop in at the last minute, Mr Rocap said.

"I know that if she is put to death it will be a huge and grave injustice," he said. "She wants to live very much. She wants to be able to reach out and help people. She thinks she can in the future. At the same time, if things do not go that way, she is ready to accept that as God's will. As she has said, she will be a winner either way." @Email:mbradley@thenational.ae