December 10, 2010

The Fight for Teresa Lewis’s Life

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 a mentally retarded 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 defense 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.

The Project extends its gratitude to Steptoe & Johnson for its efforts and dedication in the fight for Teresa’s life. Their work was extraordinarily meaningful to Teresa and to all of us who care deeply about justice.