On Thursday September 23rd, the state of Virginia is set to execute its first woman prisoner since 1912. Teresa Lewis, 41, was found guilty of arranging to have her husband and step-son murdered by two men on October 30th, 2002 while they were sleeping in their trailer. The lives of Julian Lewis aged 51 and his son Charles aged 25 had been threatened in an earlier incident arranged by Ms. Lewis. Ms. Lewis has admitted to the crimes which she planned with the goal of collecting $250,000 in insurance money. One of the men who killed the Lewis’s, Matthew Shallenberger who was Ms. Lewis’s lover, was found guilty of the crime and committed suicide three years later while incarcerated. It is interesting to note that Mr. Shallenberger had an IQ ranging from 113 to 120. His intelligence level may have led him to use Ms. Lewis as a pawn to gain access to the life insurance payoff. Mr. Shallenberger apparently admitted in a letter that the only reason he had sex with Ms. Lewis was so that he could collect his portion of the insurance money. The other man convicted in the case, Rodney Fuller, admitted guilt and was spared the death penalty and given multiple life sentences.
The Governor of Virginia Robert McDonnell, a strong advocate of the death penalty, stated that he will not commute the death penalty in this case so Ms. Lewis’s last hope is an appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
One very controversial issue with this case is Ms. Lewis’s intellectual level. She has an IQ of between 70 and 73 (depending on the results of the examinations administered) putting her in the "borderline intellectual functioning" range which is defined by having an IQ of less than 70. Eight years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of the "mentally retarded" is unconstitutional because it constitutes excessive punishment under the Eighth Amendment.
Here’s what the United States Supreme Court wrote eight years ago in Atkins v. Commonwealth:
"The lesser culpability of the mentally retarded offender surely does not merit that form of retribution…"
It is also apparent that defining who is mentally disabled is far more difficult than it would appear to be as admitted by the Supreme Court. Here’s their definition:
"“Mentally retarded” means a disability, originating before the age of 18 years, characterized concurrently by (i) significantly subaverage intellectual functioning as demonstrated by performance on a standardized measure of intellectual functioning administered in conformity with accepted professional practice, that is at least two standard deviations below the mean and (ii) significant limitations in adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills."
The Supreme Court also left it up to individual states to"develop appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon its execution of sentences.".