Home > Va. woman executed for slayings in 2002
JARRATT, VA. - Teresa Lewis, who plotted with her young lover to kill her husband and stepson for insurance money, became the first woman executed in Virginia in nearly 100 years Thursday night when she was killed by lethal injection.
Lewis, 41, was a mother who became a grandmother behind bars. Wearing a light blue prison-issued shirt and dark blue pants, Lewis looked anxious as she was led by officers into the death chamber at 8:55 p.m. She was placed on a white gurney, with leather straps securing her ankles, legs, wrists and chest, before intravenous lines were attached to each arm.
Lewis asked whether Kathy Clifton, the daughter and sister of her victims, was in the chamber.
"I just want Kathy to know that I love you, and I’m very sorry," Lewis said before the drugs were pumped into her arms. Her feet, clad in flip-flops, twitched, but no other movement was visible. Her spiritual adviser, Chaplain Julie Perry, cried as she stood in the back of the witness room.
Lewis was pronounced dead at 9:13 p.m.
Lewis’s case generated passion and interest across the world. The European Union asked Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) to commute her sentence to life, citing her mental capacity. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cited the case at an appearance in New York.
The case began on an October night nearly eight years ago, when Lewis prayed with her husband, slipped into bed next to him in their Danville trailer and waited for her two conspirators to come inside the door she had left unlocked. The two men showed up about 3:15 a.m., opened fire, then fled.
After the shooting, Lewis waited about half an hour to call 911. Her stepson, Charles "C.J." Lewis, died quickly. But her husband, Julian Lewis, whose body was riddled with birdshot, was alive and moaning "baby, baby, baby" when police arrived.
At first, Lewis told officers the shooting was the work of an unknown intruder dressed in black. But she eventually confessed that she and her lover, Matthew Shallenberger, then 22, killed for money. She led police to Shallenberger and a second gunman and ultimately admitted her crimes in court.
Lewis is the 12th woman to be executed in the United States since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. The most recent was in Texas in 2005, when Frances Newton was killed by lethal injection for shooting her husband and two children.
Although the fight for Lewis’s life did not draw nearly the attention of that surrounding Karla Faye Tucker, the pickax killer turned born-again Christian executed in 1998, more than 5,500 people signed an electronic petition asking McDonnell to spare her.
The Virginia Catholic Conference, the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church and the ARC of Virginia, which advocates for people with mental disabilities, were among the groups that urged that Lewis’s sentence be commuted to life in prison.
On Saturday, Lewis was moved to the Greensville Correctional Center, site of Virginia’s death house. She requested her final meal: fried chicken, sweet peas with butter, German chocolate cake and Dr Pepper, corrections officials said.
Lewis’s attorney, James Rocap, said she visited her son, Billy, twice Thursday and spoke with her daughter, Christie, by phone. He said she wrote private letters to both children.
Her supporters never said that Lewis was innocent or that she shouldn’t be punished. But they said she did not deserve to die because she was borderline mentally retarded, with the intellectual ability of about a 13-year-old, and was manipulated by a smarter conspirator. It was wrong for her to be sentenced to death, they said, when the two men who fired the shots received life terms.
Prison chaplains and fellow inmates supported Lewis, saying she created a ministry of sorts in prison and was a source of strength for other women looking for a maternal figure. Some prisoners said she sang gospel music, calming the ward.
McDonnell, who has supported legislation to expand the use of the death penalty, denied a first clemency request, then a second renewed plea. He said in a statement that no medical expert had determined that Lewis was mentally retarded as defined by Virginia law.
McDonnell said Lewis was an active participant in the crime, giving the men cash to buy weapons and drawing her 16-year-old daughter, who had sex with one of the gunmen, into the plot. Lewis had helped orchestrate an earlier failed plot to kill Julian Lewis and left the door unlocked the night of the shootings.
In 2003, Lewis pleaded guilty to capital murder and was sentenced to death by a judge who called her "the head of this serpent." One shooter, Rodney Fuller, made a deal with prosecutors in return for a life sentence. The judge sentenced Shallenberger to life, saying that was only fair because of Fuller’s deal.
But Shallenberger, who dreamed of becoming a mob hit man, later told a former girlfriend in a letter that he had used Lewis because he wanted money to go to New York and become a drug dealer. He committed suicide in prison.
On Friday evening, Kathy Clifton, Julian Lewis’s daughter and C.J.’s sister, learned from McDonnell’s office that the execution would probably be carried out. After dinner, she went to the cemetery where her father and brother are buried.
"We went just to visit," Clifton said. "That’s the last place I saw them."
Clifton said this week that she planned to witness Lewis’s execution to honor her father and brother. She has kept scrapbooks documenting the criminal case.
Julian Lewis, a Vietnam veteran who worked as an electrician at the Dan River textile plant, often cared for Kathy Clifton’s son, his grandson. C.J. Lewis, who was in the National Guard, was a musician and played piano, mandolin and guitar. His daughter was 4 when he was slain.
Clifton, who said she had forgiven Teresa Lewis, had never pushed for the death penalty. But she had said earlier that Lewis’s death would bring "vindication."
"I feel like once it’s all said and done, I’ll be able to shut the door on this chapter and move on with the future," Clifton said.
"I will know for a fact she will never be able to harm anyone again," Clifton said. "She claims to be a Christian, and I don’t know how strong her faith is, but I have faith in my Lord. He says not to kill, but He also says to obey the law of the land. If she was truly a spiritual person, she would be happy to go along with any sentence."
Rocap said Lewis asked him to thank the people who fought to spare her life, saying: "It was just awesome."
"Tonight, the machinery of death in Virginia extinguished the beautiful and childlike human spirit of Teresa Lewis," Rocap said.
As she visited with family and lawyers over the past few days, Rocap said, Lewis prayed for her victims, for McDonnell and even the prosecutor.
"She laughed, she sang, she prayed," Rocap said. "I think, frankly, she had accepted what was going to happen a long time ago, and she was very peaceful."
In an interview last month at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for women, where Lewis was imprisoned for seven years because the state’s death row accommodates only men, she said she prayed and read her Bible. She had nightmares about the murders and said she thought of Julian Lewis and C.J. Lewis each day.
"I wish I could give Kathy the world and take away her hurt," Lewis said then. "I can’t even imagine the pain she’s been through all these years."