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.

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.

The reason it’s so hard to separate capital punishment from gender bias is that the whole capital punishment machine is hugely gender-biased, and always has been. Capital punishment has to be one of the most sexist systems left in America. Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977, only 11 of the 1,224 people executed have been women. Victor Streib, a professor of law at Ohio Northern University and an expert on gender bias, noted in 1996 that while women comprise 13 percent of arrests for murder, they receive only 2 percent of the death sentences. “It’s like there’s something more valuable about women’s lives,” he has said. “Women are also treated differently when they’re victims.”

But who’s really going to argue for gender parity in state-sanctioned execution? Is anyone out there celebrating Lewis’ shattering of another glass ceiling this week? Hard to imagine even the staunchest feminist insisting that if women commit 10 percent of the murders, they should compose 10 percent of those executed for it. * The better feminist response to the infrequency of capital punishment for women should probably be to fight to see that it’s equally rare for men.

That’s because gender bias cuts both ways in the criminal justice system. While women are sentenced to death far less frequently than men, often the offenses for which they are sentenced are also rooted in antiquated gender stereotypes. When women are sentenced to die, say experts, it tends to be for the most sexist reasons. Often, their crimes involve the murder of a spouse or a child, which comes with the assumption that they are bad mothers or unnatural wives. Experts say that men on death row, by comparison, have more often than not killed a stranger and done so in the commission of another crime. Why the double standard? Maybe it’s because, from the days of the Puritans, Americans have thrilled to stories of fiendish and beastly women who killed their loved ones. The culture expected white women to be “kindly, passive, virtuous caretakers,” writes Phyllis Goldfarb, a professor of law at George Washington University. When they committed murder instead, she writes, “execution seemed utterly appropriate.”

In the event you are still doubtful that Teresa Lewis’ entire story has been about nothing but gender all along, here’s one last gender-freighted argument that has greatly moved her supporters: Lewis has reportedly been a model prisoner and has a “calming influence” on her fellow inmates, even though she is in solitary confinement and cannot see them. Lewis evidently sings to them and counsels them and has become a model of ministering to the Christian inmates. Of course this also plays into gender stereotypes: Lewis as a nurturing mommy figure, complete with soothing songs and tender caregiving. She has reverted back to the “natural woman” Phyllis Goldfarb described. When a man on death row is said to be “reformed” and thus undeserving of capital punishment, “calming” and “nurturing” are not usually the adjectives used to describe him.

It’s impossible for me to see any value in killing Teresa Lewis Thursday morning. While the facts of her crime are hideous, she is not the kind of incorrigible monster often presented as the best argument for capital punishment. At the same time, those of us who are so quick to see her as a loving, nurturing, transformed creature might also want to stop and consider how we’d credit such a redemption if she were a man.

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Clarification, Sept. 22, 2010: This sentence originally read, “Hard to imagine even the staunchest feminist insisting that if women commit 10 percent of the murders, they should die 10 percent of the time for it.” ( Return to the revised sentence.)