Teresa Lewis: the face of gender differences on death row

Teresa Lewis is scheduled for execution at 9 p.m. Thursday. Two percent of death-row inmates in the US are female, and Teresa Lewis would be the first woman in Virginia to die by the state's death penalty since 1912.

By , Staff writer

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    Teresa Lewis, shown in this 2007 file photo, is scheduled for execution at 9 p.m. Thursday for her role in slaying her husband and stepson for money.
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Teresa Lewis admitted to her role in slaying her husband and stepson for money. That prompted the judge in the 2003 proceedings to call her "the head of this serpent" – a plot that also involved two gunmen, who agreed to sex and cash in exchange for murder.

As Ms. Lewis, a fervent Christian, prepares to face a Virginia execution at 9 p.m. Thursday, she's become another rallying cry for death-penalty opponents, who see the case as a potentially pivotal one in a larger debate about whether a modern nation should be in the business of killing its citizens.

But the fact that Lewis is a woman sets this case apart from many others. In a society where women have sought – and won – equality on nearly every front, the prospect of putting a woman to death still resonates in different ways. And it's not just the American public that might have a tempered view of women who commit capital offenses: Judges and juries tend to respond differently to female killers, too.

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Intelligence tests show that Lewis is not bright, but is also not mentally retarded – which would automatically qualify her for commutation. The governor of Virginia and the US Supreme Court have both sided with the Virginia appeals courts, which upheld the conviction and the sentence.

"Nobody questions her guilt in this case. It's just whether or not she's a sympathetic figure," says David Muhlhausen, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "[Clemency advocates] are playing on the public sentiment that women are less culpable than men."

To be sure, many death-row critics speaking up for Lewis say that they're calling for a commutation not because she's a woman, but because of the "injustice" of the case itself, in which the actual killers got life sentences and the admitted plotter received the death penalty.

"In short, Teresa's documented level of intellectual functioning, cognition and judgment make it far more likely that she was led into the scheme ... and not vice versa," writes human rights activist Bianca Jagger in an appeal to Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) on The Huffington Post website.

Yet it's clear to many that Lewis's case is being publicized at least in part because she is a woman. She would be the first woman in Virginia to die by the state's death penalty since 1912, many news accounts note.

Condemnations of Lewis's looming execution have come in from all over the world. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a speech to Islamic clerics in New York on Monday, said that the Western media's coverage of the Lewis case shows a double standard, when compared with recent coverage of an Iranian woman who had been sentenced to death for adultery, according to the Associated Press.

"Meanwhile, nobody objects to the case of an American woman who is going to be executed," the AP quotes Mr. Ahmadinejad as saying.

The Iranian president may be an imperfect messenger for death-penalty critics in the United States, but he does touch on the role of gender in the case.

"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," writes Dahlia Lithwick in Slate. "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."

While women make up 12 percent of all capital murder suspects in any given year, only 2 percent of death-row inmates are female. Women have made up 1 percent of the 1,168 total executions in the US since 1973.

"Although the Court has addressed the issue of arbitrariness almost exclusively in the context of race, discrimination based on gender is perhaps just as common," says a 2000 report by Phillip Barron in the Radical Philosophy Review, an academic journal. "Nonetheless, gender discrimination continues to be ignored by the judicial process."

One explanation from social scientists: Judges – who are mostly male – are likely to impose softer sanctions on women because a natural male reaction is to protect women. More broadly, the sense that women are physically smaller and men are more violent can play into how the legal system views female killers.

"It's like there's something more valuable about women's lives.... Women are also treated differently when they're victims," Ohio Northern University law professor Victor Streib has said, according to The Seattle Times.

But even if statistics indicate that gender biases can ultimately benefit many female murderers, Lewis's gender may have worked against her. She plotted the death of her husband and stepson, and the final words of her dying husband were included in the indictment against her: "My wife knows who done this to me."

"There is a kind of a play on the notion that you expect women to protect the family, and she is paying to get rid of the family," Professor Streib told the BBC.

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