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Herland: Teresa Lewis’ execution: A woman’s perspective on the death penalty

10/18/2010 – 12:38

Cassandra Cammarata

Staff Writer

On Thursday night, Teresa Lewis was executed for the planned murder of her husband and stepson. She was the first woman to be executed in Virginia since 1912, and was the 50th in the United States since 1900. Why is it that women are not subject to the death penalty as often? Is it because of a notion by the justice system that women are not as horrific of killers as men are, or do women really not murder as often?

In an article by USA Today last week, Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, reported that women commit about 10 percent of murders nationwide, but make up only one percent of the executions. Dieter said he believes this to be not a bias towards women, but rather that the nature of their crimes is not as aggravating as those which face the death penalty, which include long-term planning, torture and rape.

Women do not seem to possess, in most instances, the sadism that is involved in these crimes. In most instances, the crimes are one-time affairs and are not a part of a life-long spree of violence. This brings up the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture. Women, or girls, are brought up in society differently than men, or boys, are.

Although this is not inherently wrong, boys and girls are physically and biologically different. It does present issues of how they are treated, reacted to and generally guided in upbringing. But are the differences in physicality and biology the cause of these treatments in society? It’s a tangled web, but I have never seen scientific data claiming girls are biologically driven to enjoy pink and boys, blue.

It’s interesting to note that two of the three women on the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, voted to commute Lewis’ sentence. Sotomayor has had little experience in death penalty rulings and only met one when initiated into the high court, where she ruled that the penalty should be upheld in that particular case.

I can’t help but wonder if Lewis being a woman, as well as Lewis’ low IQ weighted the decision. I do not, in any way, believe this makes them poor judges, but rather were being sympathetic to a case that obviously lends itself to be. But this could open up doubt of the justice’s appropriateness and bias in decision-making. Although no one ever is quick to insinuate male justices in favor of male prisoners are being biased.

Another oddity in the Lewis case is why the hired killer, Matthew Shallenberger, was not facing the death penalty as well? Even after he admitted that he was using Lewis, by sleeping with her, so that she would fall in love with him and he could collect the insurance money on the killings.

Lewis’ attorney noted that Lewis had an IQ of 72, which is low, but that Shallenberger’s IQ measured 113. As a letter to his girlfriend, while in prison stated, “I figured why go to New York for $20,000 a hit when I could do just one and make $350,000 off of it,” said Shallenberger in reference to Lewis. Shallenberger committed suicide in prison in 2006, but was sentenced to life without parole, along with the other gunman, Rodney Fuller.

I personally don’t think it was fair that a woman who was near mental disability and overcome with addictions to painkillers should face the death penalty when her accomplices who did the actual deed of murder and had their own malicious intentions did not receive the same sentence. Sometimes, the justice system doesn’t seem to work justly.

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