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The Death Penalty and Teresa Lewis September 22, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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Let’s talk about the death penalty. A final appeal has just been denied by the Supreme Court, and a convicted criminal is headed for execution Thursday night. Such denials of appeals happen on a regular basis, but this one is a little different—and I’m not talking about the fact that the criminal, in this case, is a woman. If we want equality, well, there it is: If a man can get executed for being the mastermind of a murder-for-hire (and he can), so can a woman. No, it is the fact that this case goes against the recent tendency in the legal discussion to reserve the death penalty for the “worst of the worst,” if the death penalty is to be imposed at all.

If you are opposed to the death penalty, there is no particular reason to look more closely at this case, because all executions are, to you, morally wrong, regardless of the guilt or innocence of the person on Death Row, their age, their mental capacity, their remorse or lack of it, etc. Still, the case provides another opportunity to argue why capital punishment is wrong per se. If you’d like to share such arguments here as comments, feel free. But if you are in favor of the death penalty, this case deserves your attention, because Teresa Lewis doesn’t seem to fit the category of “the worst of the worst”—not like serial killers Ted Bundy (executed), or Robert Yates (awaiting execution), or the Green River Killer Gary Ridgway with his scores of murders (serving life without, because he made a plea deal). She hired a man (who happened to be her lover) to kill her husband and stepson. Before he killed himself in prison, he apparently stated in an interview that he had put pressure on her to go through with it, because he needed the money. Both he and a second hired shooter got life because of plea deals.  And it appears that Lewis’s mental capacity, while not reaching the criterion of being legally “diminished,” is still on the low side with an IQ of 72, making her sense of judgment more like that of a 13-year old.  She has no prior history of violence, and she apparently has shown genuine remorse during her years in prison.

I can’t claim to be familiar with the ins and outs of this case, because it just came to my attention, but after reading a number of news stories about Lewis, it seems to me that we’re definitely not talking about the “worst of the worst.” From a utilitarian point of view she would  present no danger to the general prison population, if  her sentence were commuted to life.  From a deontological point of view, justice must be done, but wouldn’t justice be served as well with her in prison, since that was the sentence given to the actual gunmen who may have influenced her decision? Her guilt is not in doubt, but her role as sole instigator may be.

There are many things I don’t know about this case; were D.A.s and judges up for reelection while it was going on? I have no idea. If they were, would it matter to their voters if they were tough on crime? I don’t know. I will assume that the trial had no elements that would make us question the motivations of the court, other than justice. But it seems to me that, contrary to that other infamous killer who took the life of his wife and their unborn baby/3rd trimester fetus, Scott Peterson, who didn’t have a history of violence, either, and who was sentenced to death, Lewis seems like a person who might be manipulated. Not a person of good intentions (or, as her lawyer says, “a good and decent human person”) at the time of the crimes, to be sure, but not a manipulative master mind, either. Still, within the legal parameters of capital punishment, we’re probably not talking about a miscarriage of justice if this woman is put to death—but might this not be an appropriate occasion to consider mercy?

According to author John Grisham, in a Washington Post article earlier this month,

Such inconsistencies mock the idea that ours is a system grounded in equality before the law.

In this case, as in so many capital cases, the imposition of a death sentence had little do with fairness. Like other death sentences, it depended more upon the assignment of judge and prosecutor, the location of the crime, the quality of the defense counsel, the speed with which a co-defendant struck a deal, the quality of each side’s experts and other such factors.

In Virginia, the law is hardly consistent. There have been other cases with similar facts — a wife and her lover scheme to kill her husband for his money or for life insurance proceeds. But there is no precedent for the wife being sentenced to death.

Your thoughts?

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