In Virginia, a Woman on the Verge of Execution

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Teresa Lewis was sentenced to death for plotting to have her husband and stepson killed in 2002. Lewis could become the first woman executed in Virginia in nearly 100 years

After midnight on Oct. 30, 2002, two men crept into an unlocked trailer in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. A family of three was sleeping. Toting shotguns, the intruders roused Teresa Lewis, now 40, and told her to leave the bedroom she shared with her husband Julian. One of the men shot Julian several times. The other intruder stalked down the hall and put five bullets into Julian's son, C.J., a U.S. Army reservist. The intruders divvied up the cash in Julian's wallet and fled the trailer. About 45 minutes later, Teresa Lewis called the police to report that her husband and stepson had been killed. But when the police arrived, Julian Lewis was still alive. Among his last words was an ominous accusation: "My wife knows who done this to me."

She did. As detailed in court documents, Teresa Lewis had paid the shooters — Matthew Shallenberger, 22, and Rodney Fuller, 19 — to kill her husband and stepson. Some murders are spurred by sex and others by money; in this one it was both. After meeting the pair at a local Walmart, Lewis started an affair with Shallenberger. In return for killing Julian and C.J. Lewis, Teresa promised to split her stepson's $250,000 life-insurance policy with the two men, and she fronted $1,200 in cash to buy the guns and ammunition with which her family would be executed. In May 2003, after waiving her right to a trial, Lewis pleaded guilty to seven offenses, including two counts of murder for hire. A judge, deeming Lewis the crime's mastermind — "the head of this serpent," as he put it — sentenced her to death by lethal injection. The triggermen, who also pleaded guilty, were given life sentences.

Barring the U.S. Supreme Court's intervention or a decision by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell to grant clemency, on Sept. 23 Lewis will become the first woman executed by the commonwealth in 98 years, and just the 12th overall since the U.S. reinstated the death penalty in 1976. No one disputes her guilt, or the heinousness of her crime. Whether she should be put to death for it is a murkier matter.

Lewis' lawyers have offered several reasons for why her sentence should be lightened, including tests that show Lewis is on the cusp of mental retardation. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that executing mentally retarded prisoners violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. But Virginia does not consider prisoners mentally handicapped unless they score significantly below the mean on an IQ test and struggle to function in society. Lewis — who scored as low as 70 — hasn't qualified in the eyes of appeals courts. In addition to her poor cognitive abilities, says Lewis' current lawyer Jim Rocap, she was addled by an addiction to prescription painkillers at the time of the killings, a condition that Rocap says contributed to her apparent lack of remorse. (According to the court documents, she began inquiring about redeeming her husband's paycheck and stepson's life-insurance policy, for example, just hours after the murders.)

Some medical experts also determined that Lewis suffered from a dependent-personality disorder, which left her particularly susceptible to manipulation by men. Rocap, who has represented Lewis since 2004, argues that Lewis was exploited by Shallenberger, who tested as considerably more intelligent and penned a 2003 letter to an associate stating that he had struck up an affair with Lewis to "get her to 'fall in love' with me so she would give me the insurance money." (Shallenberger committed suicide in 2006.) "Nobody who has personal knowledge of their relationship disputes that he was the leader, the person controlling Teresa," Rocap says. But Lewis' trial lawyers declined to address this point during the sentencing phase of the case, and appellate law limits the type of evidence that can be introduced during habeas hearings.

In deciding whether to grant clemency, Governor McDonnell can consider a range of mitigating circumstances, including the Shallenberger letter and Lewis' behavior during the seven years she has lived in an isolated, 6-by-8-ft. cell at a Fluvanna County correctional facility. During her imprisonment, Lewis' faith has deepened. She ministers to other prisoners and has "provided some measure of peace" to troubled inmates, says the Rev. Lynn Litchfield, Lewis' prison chaplain until April 2009. "I really believe Teresa can be a positive influence inside," Litchfield says. Governor McDonnell will issue a clemency ruling by Sept. 18, in keeping with his policy of ruling on clemency petitions at least five days before the date of a scheduled execution, says his spokesman, Tucker Martin.

Rocap describes his client as anxious and apprehensive as the days tick away. "She wants to live. She's not resigned to dying," he says. "She thinks she has a lot to offer and she wants to do anything she can to make people realize she's much more than the person that was depicted on the worst day of her life." In testimony written by Lewis and read by a fellow inmate at services held in late August, the condemned was remorseful. "I've done so many things wrong. I took two people's lives that I loved very much and I hurt so many more that I loved as well!" she writes, later adding, "I don't want to die this way, or actually die at all! ... I will fight to the end, and in the end, no matter what, I'm gonna win either way."