Is justice blind?

Published : Oct 22, 2010 00:00 IST

A PROTEST AGAINST the execution of Teresa Lewis outside the Greensville Correctional Centre in Virginia on September 23.-STEVE HELBER/AP

A PROTEST AGAINST the execution of Teresa Lewis outside the Greensville Correctional Centre in Virginia on September 23.-STEVE HELBER/AP

The execution of a woman by the State of Virginia shows that the U.S. too is as ruthless as some other countries in enforcing capital punishment.

The fundamental question is whether any life can be deemed of no value whatsoever, capable of being legitimately snuffed out.

A reader's comment in The Washington Post (September 27) on the execution of Teresa Lewis of Virginia

ONE is generally sceptical of governments, both on what they do and on what they omit to do. Take, for instance, the initial stand taken by the Indian government in the matter of foodgrains rotting in warehouses, a callousness to which the Supreme Court took umbrage in firm language, or the messing up of the preparations for the Commonwealth Games by a host of stakeholders, including the Delhi government.

This negative perception of state institutions extends sometimes to judicial orders also. But nothing beats the insanity of what happened in the United States a few weeks ago, when the Governor of Virginia and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene to stay the execution, on September 23, of a 41-year-old woman accused of murdering her husband and stepson. It is painful that they shied away from taking a humane stand despite the authority and latitude they enjoy and the vociferous protests from death sentence-abolitionists. By all standards of civilisational progress, a death sentence is obnoxious in itself. It is even more so when the state takes the life of a woman.

Some fundamental statistics highlight how the execution of Teresa Lewis was unusual, if not unprecedented. Hers was the first execution of a woman in a century in Virginia, and the first for the whole country in five years. Also, of the nearly 1,200 persons awarded capital punishment in the country since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court restored the penalty, only 11 have been women. Against this backdrop, what has been reported from Virginia has rightly earned negative publicity for the whole U.S. criminal justice system. This should also invite world attention to the fact that when it comes to ruthlessness in enforcing capital punishment, the U.S. is in the same league as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Congo, Egypt and Iraq. Certainly, this is not the company the U.S. would like to keep.

The facts of the case are simple. Teresa Lewis was married for the second time to Julian (51), who had a 25-year-old stepson. It is not clear how well the marriage was working out. But it is believed that somewhere along the line, Teresa, who had a known learning disability, set her eyes on her husband's estate and the insurance on his son's life. In order to appropriate both, she entered into a criminal pact with two men of questionable background, Matthew Shallenberger and Rodney Fuller.

The exact terms of this partnership were in doubt, but the fact that Teresa had a liaison with Shallenberger added spice to the unholy alliance. On the night of October 30, 2002, Teresa left the door of her house unlocked to facilitate the entry of the two men and their shooting down of the father and son. During the police investigation, Teresa initially took the plea that the murders were the work of an intruder, but wilted subsequently under some tough questioning and admitted to her horrendous crime. This led to the arrest of her accomplices as well.

The trial was without a jury because under Virginia law when a defendant confesses to his or her crime, the judge can dispense with it. On Fuller's confession and agreement to cooperate with the prosecution, he was awarded a life sentence. Taking the cue from this and considering the fact that the trial judge had never awarded a death sentence, Teresa also pleaded guilty, hoping to receive just a life imprisonment.

Much to her shock, however, the death penalty was imposed on her. Shallenberger, like Fuller, was also given only a life term. This caused many eyebrows to raise in the legal fraternity. It was a matter of surprise that while the actual perpetrators got only a life sentence, the person who only facilitated it was awarded capital punishment.

Justifying this differential, the trial judge said Teresa was the head of the serpent, and did not deserve any sympathy also because she did not do anything to assist her husband who was struggling for his life in her presence. He added that she was guilty of greed in ordering the cold blooded, pitiless slaying of two men, horrible and inhumane, something that fits the definition of the outrageous or wantonly vile, horrible, act.

The judge was also not impressed with the findings of a forensic psychiatrist who examined Teresa before she entered her guilty plea. The psychiatrist found her Full Scale IQ to be 72, which put her on the borderline. A score of 70 or less would have given her the benefit of mental incompetence to commit the said crime.

After the rejection of her mercy plea by the Virginia Governor, who went by the decision of the trial court and other reviewing courts in the State, Teresa's lawyers went in appeal to the Supreme Court. In doing so, they cited the results of two separate IQ tests Teresa took after her sentencing by the trial court. These were conducted by her own expert and one working for the State. She obtained ratings of 73 and 70 respectively. A score below 70 would have enabled her to be regarded as mentally retarded. Also cited were Teresa's contrition and her exemplary behaviour in prison.

The defence further referred to a letter Shallenberger wrote to a fellow prisoner, in which he referred to how susceptible Teresa was to his manipulation in conspiring to plan the murders. (The letter could not, however, be produced by the defence lawyers before the Supreme Court because Shallenberger committed suicide while in prison.) None of these arguments influenced the Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction and death sentence. Interestingly, of the three women judges in the court, two dissented and desired a halt to the execution.

The execution of Teresa Lewis has generated a huge controversy. One of the first to jump into the fray was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who accused the U.S. of practising double standards. His reference was to the U.S. criticism, earlier this year, of the sentencing to death by stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani by an Iranian court, which, fortunately, is yet to be carried out.

Also joining the chorus of protest was the famous crime novelist John Grisham, according to whom the criminal law and procedure in Virginia reeked of inconsistencies that contributed to the unfairness to Teresa. Writing for The Washington Post (September 12) pleading for clemency for Teresa, he said:

There have been other cases with similar facts a wife and her lover scheme to kill her husband for his money or for life insurance proceeds. But there is no precedent for the wife being sentenced to death.

I cannot agree more with Grisham that Teresa deserved to live, although that could be inside prison. I am more concerned about the very barbarity of capital punishment and totally in sync with what The Times, London, said (September 25) on Teresa's execution: it is never justifiable to execute a citizen with the authority of the State. There is inadequate evidence that capital punishment acts as a deterrent. It is an irreversible act that ignores the risk of a miscarriage of justice. No room is allowed for repentance or correction. And by sanctioning such an act, society diminishes itself.

The Times' arguments are the same advanced ad nauseam all over the world by persons who want to make a difference to the world they live in. This is why I would again ask the readers, as I have done a number of times before and in various forums, to ponder the inequity of capital punishment and build strong public opinion that will eventually persuade policymakers to remove the penalty from the statute books.

Fortunately, the courts in India are extremely judicious and selective in the matter, and there are just a few executions every year. But this is no reason why we should persist with this cruelty that does not square with what the Father of the Nation stood for: compassion and charity. Bereft of these components, a criminal justice system is both lame and blind.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment