Wherever you stand on the death penalty, the story of the Teresa Lewis, incarcerated on death row in Jarratt, Virginia, is likely to give you pause.
Lewis is set to die by lethal injection on Thursday evening, September 23rd. She will be the first woman executed in Virginia since 1912. Her case is disturbing--not only for what she did, but also for what has been done to her. Women who kill have a special place in our cultural consciousness--on some deep level that we may or may not be aware of, we likely feel that a female murderer is more depraved, more "unnatural," than a male one. And this might lead all of us--not only the public, but also ostensibly neutral judges as well--to feel particularly outraged, and to call for especially harsh "justice" that isn't just.
Murder is, statistically speaking, the province of men. And in Lewis's case, where the men who actually pulled the trigger got life sentences, it is arguably the men who got off easy.
Lewis, 41 and now allegedly devout Christian, has an IQ of 72 and is, as has been widely reported, borderline retarded. She has also been diagnosed with dependent personality disorder, a diagnosis psychologists tell us is not easy to "fake." Eight years ago she met two young men, Rodney Shallenberger and his roommate ("trailer-mate," in the words of a New York Times report) Rodney Fuller, at a Wal-Mart. Shortly thereafter, she had sex with both and encouraged her own daughter, then 16, to have sex with Fuller. Eventually she gave the two men money to purchase weapons, left her own trailer door unlocked, and stood by as the men shot her husband and 25-year-old stepson repeatedly. She then waited 45 minutes to call 911. So far, she's not winning any awards for good citizenship. Her actions were astonishingly callous, appalling. But should Teresa Lewis die?
Lewis eventually confessed to police, telling them who had shot her husband and stepson. Judge Charles Strauss, however, ruled that Lewis was largely responsible for the deaths, in spite of not pulling the trigger, suggesting that she seduced and manipulated the killers with sex and money, demonstrating a "depravity of mind" that made the death sentence appropriate. He further deemed her "the head of the serpent" in the crime.
But when we look at all the puzzle pieces, we have to wonder whether Judge Strauss was ruling from his head, or from his unconscious. How about this for a scenario, one with evidence, rather than gender biased projections, to back it up: Shallenberger, who later committed suicide in prison, told a girlfriend that he himself had masterminded the scheme, realizing that Lewis could be easily manipulated into allowing her husband to be killed by the two men, and his insurance pay-out subsequently split among them. "I got her to fall in love with me so she would give me the insurance money," Shallenberger wrote before killing himself in 2006.
Maybe the question is not, Is there any excuse for such craven behavior as Lewis's? We might ask instead, Is there any rationalization for the radical, sexist discrepancy in punishment in which a woman who allegedly directed and certainly abetted a crime pays a much higher price that the two men who actually committed it? Or for failing to retry a woman once compelling evidence emerges that she was manipulated by men who sensed that her limited intelligence and poor judgment made her ripe for exploitation? Two men are dead forever. And a killer killed himself. How does that make Teresa Lewis a cunning, noir-ish spiderwoman who must also die? A woman who stood by while her husband and stepson were killed may also have been trapped in a web spun by others.