In January 2010, Investigative Fund reporter Renee Feltz wrote a shocking cover story forThe Texas Observer revealing that the state of Texas has continued to send mentally retarded inmates to death row — despite a U.S. Supreme Court ban. Now, the Commonwealth of Virginia is about to execute 41-year-old Teresa Lewis, a woman who pled guilty for her role in the murder of her husband and his son eight years ago — and who was found by a Duke University psychiatrist to have an IQ of 72, just two points above the typical cutoff for mental retardation.
As Feltz explained in her article:
In 2002…the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case called Atkins v. Virginia that “executions of mentally retarded criminals are cruel and unusual.” Even though mentally disabled people can understand the difference between right and wrong, the court reasoned that they are less able to control impulsive behavior or learn from mistakes. The court supported its decision by pointing to bans on executing the mentally retarded in 17 states and in federal cases as “evolving standards of decency.”
The Atkins case, ironically enough, involved a Virginia defendant, a man named Daryl Atkins. And as John Grisham wrote in his Washington Post column, Old Dominion is number two in the nation — after Texas — in the number of executions it has ordered over the past 30 years. Lewis’s execution, though, would mark the first execution of a woman in Virginia in nearly a century, one reason why her case has garnered some notoriety. (See Monica Potts inThe American Prospect for why a discussion of Lewis’ gender is not germane. And Slate’s Dalia Lithwich for an argument on why Lewis’ sentence was sexist.)
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has denied her pleas for clemency, while the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision (Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were the dissenting voices), denied Lewis a stay of execution. Jim Rocap III, Lewis’s attorney since 2004, said in a statement after the court’s decision was announced, “We are deeply disappointed. A good and decent person is about to lose her life because of a system that is badly broken.”
I strongly disagree with the death penalty, in any case. But for it to be meted out to someone who is severely intellectually challenged seems unconscionably harsh. Mahatma Gandhi once said that the measure of a society was the way it treated its weakest members. What will the execution of Teresa Lewis say about us?
FURTHER READING: Read Renee Feltz’s investigations, “Cracked” and “Low IQ Prisoner Faces Execution.” For more about Lewis’ case, go to the Save Teresa Lewis website. For a passionate articulation of the case against Lewis’ execution, read a Newsweek op-ed by the former chaplain at the Virginia prison where Lewis is being held.
UPDATE: Lewis was pronounced dead at 9.13 p.m. on September 23, 2010. I heard from human rights lawyer and Nation Institute fellow Scott Horton in the wake of her execution, who said, “The Teresa Lewis case shows again how certain states whose political leadership is seized by zeal for the death penalty will circumvent the Supreme Court’s prohibition on executing mentally retarded criminals. In states like Texas, and now Virginia, it seems that executing the mentally handicapped is just good politics.”