How the planned execution of Teresa Lewis challenges our views on gender and capital punishment.

How the planned execution of Teresa Lewis challenges our views on gender and capital punishment.

How the planned execution of Teresa Lewis challenges our views on gender and capital punishment.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Sept. 21 2010 5:02 PM

Lady Killer

How the planned execution of Teresa Lewis challenges our views on gender and capital punishment.

An electric chair and gurney.

The first sentence of almost every press account about Teresa Lewis—the first woman slated to be executed in Virginia in almost 100 years—notes that she will be the first woman to be executed in Virginia in almost 100 years. After that, nobody quite knows what to say about Lewis' gender or how it figures into a larger debate about capital punishment. Here's something: If Lewis were a man, her execution would hardly be news. Here's another: Gender notwithstanding, Lewis is actually a pretty great candidate for capital punishment.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate, and hosts the podcast Amicus.

I do not mean to imply that I think Teresa Lewis should be executed. (For the record, I don't.) I simply mean that her case clarifies a lot of the issues that often cloud the national debate over capital punishment. So many outrageous death sentences, executions, and exonerations feature crooked crime investigators, corrupt crime labs, inept forensic scientists, racial sentencing disparities, or overmatched public defenders. But Lewis' case does not really speak to the many procedural doubts many of us have about the fairness of the death penalty. It speaks instead to the doubts we have about killing women.


Lewis was sentenced to death in 2003 for hiring two killers who shot her husband, Julian Clifton Lewis, and her stepson, Charles Lewis. According to the prosecutors, the two were lured into Lewis's scheme by sex (including, allegedly, her offer of sex with her own 16-year-old daughter) and money (in the form of her promise to split her son and husband's life insurance settlement with them). She bought the guns and ammunition used in the murders. She allegedly left the back door open for the killers and waited more than an hour to call 911 while her husband bled to death. She ransacked her dying husband's pockets for money she then split with the triggermen.

Lewis later confessed to the plot. She was represented by an able attorney who calculated that she'd do better if the gruesome case did not go before a jury. Her two co-conspirators received life sentences without parole in exchange for guilty pleas. She pleaded guilty as well. There was no evidence of systemic misconduct or bias in the case against her. She's white. She doesn't claim to be innocent. But I still can't find a lot of people calling for her execution to take place as scheduled on Thursday. Indeed, more than 5,500 people signed a petition begging Virginia's governor to commute the sentence. (He denied the petition last Friday.) Author John Grisham, mental health groups, and the European Union have all rallied behind her.

There's one other issue at work in the Teresa Lewis case that doesn't appear at first to involve gender: Her IQ is between 70 and 72, on the borderline of the legal definition of mental retardation. According to people who have who have known her all her life, Lewis never lived alone, couldn't buy more than one day's worth of groceries at a time, and could never balance a checkbook. For her, this meant marrying at a very young age (16) and a lifetime of being dependent on men. Bound up with the claim that Lewis is mentally impaired is the evidence that she suffers from an addiction to painkillers and has been diagnosed with dependent personality disorder, which also manifests itself in a need for constant attention and validation from men.

What does Lewis' gender have to do with her mental impairment? Maybe nothing. Lewis' lawyers have put together a strong case for keeping her alive—and they contend it has nothing to do with the fact that she is a woman. They argue that the trial judge never knew that Matthew Shallenberger, one of the two men who actually pulled the fateful trigger, boasted of being the actual mastermind of the plot. Shallenberger, who has an IQ of 113, wrote to a friend after his arrest that Lewis was "just what I was looking for: some ugly bitch who married her husband for the money and I knew I could get to fall head over heals [sic] for me." Shallenberger—who killed himself in prison in 2006—also told a private investigator in 2004: "From the moment I met her I knew she was someone who could be easily manipulated. From the moment I met her I had a plan for how I could use her to get some money." It's hard to imagine a man raising a similar claim about being lured into a criminal enterprise by a brilliant young woman.

The sentencing judge never heard most of this evidence, since there was no trial. He viewed Lewis as the mastermind of the whole enterprise, and in any event, much of the evidence that Shallenberger may have led her into it surfaced after she was sentenced. At sentencing, the trial judge called Lewis the "head of this serpent." (I'll leave it to women's studies scholars to interpret that metaphor.) It seems clear in hindsight that both her death sentence and her clemency petition contain gender assumptions that the criminal justice system does not spell out explicitly. She was sentenced harshly because she used sexuality and adultery to mastermind a murder plot against loved ones, and she seeks a reprieve from death because her sexuality made her a victim in uniquely female ways.