June 05, 2020 Success Stories

Teresa Lewis

Represented by Steptoe & Johnson LLP

Our collection of Success Stories includes the stories of two individuals, Teresa Lewis and Steve Roach, who were executed despite heroic efforts by volunteer counsel. The fact that these attorneys fought for their clients until the very end is also a victory.  Their work also has had a lasting impact, setting the stage for dramatic changes in the law that have improved due process and fairness. 

The vast majority of our pro bono clients have never known what it is to have a true advocate in their lives. When our volunteer lawyers agree to help, the mere act of becoming their client’s champion and providing hope is something to celebrate.

Teresa Lewis, a Virginia woman convicted of hiring two men to kill her husband and stepson, was executed on September 23, 2010, after the Supreme Court rejected her final appeals and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell denied repeated requests for clemency. Both gunmen in the case were given life sentences, while Teresa received the death penalty. As the first woman executed in the state of Virginia in nearly a century, Teresa’s case generated interest around the world.

Since the trial in 2002, new evidence about Teresa and the gunmen raised questions about whether she was fairly sentenced. Teresa’s IQ was tested to be about 70, placing her near the border where many states define mental retardation. In Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional to execute an intellectually disabled individual, although states were left to set their own criteria for mental retardation. Teresa’s attorneys petitioned the courts and the governor to reconsider her sentence in light of her low intelligence and evidence that she had been manipulated by the gunmen, one of whom had admitted to being the mastermind in the killing.

Teresa’s attorney, James Rocap, a partner in the Washington, DC office of Steptoe & Johnson LLP, was recruited by the Project in 2004. Mr. Rocap called this case “one of the better examples of what is wrong with the death penalty.” He noted prior to her execution: “[U]p until October of 2002, Teresa had no record of any violent conduct at all. Since she went to prison, she has been not only a model prisoner, but she has a huge amount of remorse and has developed a prison ministry under very harsh conditions. . . . Because of the death penalty in Virginia, we have a remarkable individual who did not have any violent record at all being judged on her participation in one event in one day of her life.”

Although they ultimately could not save Teresa’s life, Steptoe & Johnson’s representation of Teresa was meaningful and important. The firm brought to light many of the problems with the administration of the death penalty and helped win individual support for Teresa. Equally important, Teresa found strength and comfort in knowing that she had a team of talented and dedicated attorneys fighting on her behalf. 

Teresa’s last minutes were spent with Mr. Rocap and her spiritual advisor. The three held hands and sang hymns, and Mr. Rocap accompanied her to the execution chamber. In her last interview, given shortly before her execution, a reporter asked Teresa how she stayed positive given everything she had been through and with her execution only days away. She responded that she put her trust in her faith and in her lawyers, who not only helped her in legal matters but also served as a source of personal strength. According to Teresa, her volunteer attorneys were nothing less than “God-sent angels.”