Teresa Lewis: victim of vengeance?

Chip Shields

Naseem Rakha, the absolutely better half to Blue Oregon contributor Chuck Sheketoff, has an interesting article in London's Guardian, on the first woman murderer executed in Virginia in over a century. The article's entitled, "Teresa Lewis: victim of vengence.

Here's a sample:

On Thursday night, in a windowless chamber in a prison in Virginia, we reached number 1,227. That's the number of people who have been killed by lethal injection, hanging, firing squad, electric chair or cyanide gas since the US supreme court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

Last night's victim was 41-year-old Teresa Lewis, the first woman prisoner to be executed in the state of Virginia in close to 100 years. Her gender, mental capacity and role in the crime, plus the fact that her co-defendants were spared the death penalty, have brought national and international scrutiny to her case and the American system of justice. Why, people around the world wonder, does the United States remain the only industrialised western nation that kills killers and their accomplices?

As someone who has reported on and written about executions in the US, I've grappled with finding an answer to that question.

I've sadly reached the realisation that, in part, it undeniably reflects that some of our ugliest history lives on. Since the US supreme court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the majority of the 1,227 executions have occurred in the south – the former lynching states – and a disproportionate number of them have been members of ethnic minorities. Moreover, roughly 80% of the people on death row had white victims, not black or Latino. The rich do not receive the death penalty in the United States.

I know support for the death penalty can't rest on its accuracy, effectiveness or efficiency. Since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, 124 men have been exonerated after spending time on death row. That is, they were found to be innocent after living for years, and sometimes decades, with a death sentence. A verdict of death will cost taxpayers anywhere from 10 to 20 times more than keeping the convicted incarcerated for life. To top it off, states that do not have the death penalty, such as New York, consistently have lower murder rates than those that do conduct executions, such as Virginia. Meaning, capital punishment is not a deterrent.

The only cogent argument for having the death penalty is that some prosecutors claim it is an effective stick. Hold the threat of execution over the accused's head, and they will cop a plea, saving courts time and money, they say. How often this occurs, how much time and money it saves, and whether justice is actually served by not having trials, are questions prosecutors often fail to answer adequately. And when you consider the mistakes made when the accused don't cop a plea – those mistakes caught in time and those proven too late – it seems a very flimsy reason to give governments such an awesome and irrevocable responsibility.

Naseem authored the award-winning The Crying Tree last year.

She states in an e-mail to fans:

One other note, if you are in Oregon or Washington, I am happy to let you know Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, will be speaking in both Eugene and Portland on October 20th and 21st. Once I learn details of her visit, I will let you know. I HIGHLY recommend attending one of her talks.

You can probably find out more details on Sr. Helen's stop by going to Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

I prefer true life imprisonment with no chance of parole, plus restitution paid to the victims heirs instead of the death penalty. What do you think? And by the way, the youtube clip regards the case of George McFarland in Texas. It was part of an access to justice video by the Alliance for Justice.

So was Teresa Lewis a victim of vengeance? What do you think?

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    I prefer true life imprisonment with no chance of parole, plus restitution paid to the victims heirs instead of the death penalty. What do you think?

    I concur. Not necessarily because of the particulars of this case, but because we know for a fact that innocent people have been executed in the past. It not only costs less for actual life time imprisonment vs. completion of a capital case ending in an execution, but also allows for some semblance of correcting an unjust verdict if exculpatory evidence comes along later.

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      Agreed. Unless we can establish some "rock solid" standard of without a doubt guilt, I would rather play it safe and do away with the death penalty.

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    Excellent article. I miss Naseem Rakha's reporting on OPB. I regret that we weren't able to get the signatures to get "Life for a Life" on the ballot here in Oregon. It has broad support, even the Catholic Church, and former Senator Mark Hatfield.

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    I would just add that it seems so characteristic of the South that they take great pleasure in executing people, and mental capacity seems to have no bearing. I read where this woman's IQ was 72, which qualifies as a notable mental impairment.

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      Who is "The South" and are they all the same? Lets try not to collectively judge a whole group of people based on geography. That would be progress as well.

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    I agree. If we execute them, we're coming down to their level. What's the quote? An eye for an eye leaves the world blind. If you look at the issue from a practical, financial stand point, it costs more to put them on death row.

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    There are a very high number of people who have been discovered to be innocent after having been killed by the State. That fact alone should remove such laws from the books. Combine that with the incredible ignorance citizens have in the jury room, we have a second argument to abolish it. Jurors seem to be more likely to convict someone facing death than a lesser punishment. The idea being "Hey they would be asking for the death penalty if he did not do it" The idea that the death penalty can be used to bring about a plea bargain is also not good. Innocent people plead guilty all the time to crimes they did not commit to avoid draconian punishments. Finally, when the Jurors are of a different race and not actually the peers of the accused your chances of getting fried or injected go up as well. To me this has nothing to do with their level or what they deserve, its the implications of empowering the State to kill someone in the name of the people after that person has been incarcerated. No doubt many of them deserve to get what's coming, but we must rise to a higher level if we wish to be considered civilized.

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    Great post! I am embarrassed to say this, but I don't get the title question. is vengeance the death penalty policy? (Which as Rahka points out, has little to do with morals and everything to do with sociopolitical history) I would most certainly agree that Lewis is a victim of bad policy. REALLY bad policy.

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