Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Should this woman be executed?

Even if you support the death penalty in theory, I think it's rather difficult to support it in this case:

WASHINGTON — Barring a last-minute reprieve from the US Supreme Court, 41-year-old Teresa Lewis will on Thursday become the first woman to be executed by the state of Virginia in almost 100 years.

Abolitionists paint Lewis as a classic example of why capital punishment is flawed, saying the mother and grandmother has diminished mental faculties and was taken advantage of by smarter accomplices.

But with an IQ hovering at 70 or above, Lewis is considered fit for trial in Virginia and she pleaded guilty to hiring two men to murder her husband and stepson to pocket their 350,000-dollar life insurance policy. [...]

Lewis met Rodney Fuller and Matthew Shallenberger in a Walmart superstore. Soon she began an affair with the 22-year-old Shallenberger and encouraged her 16-year-old daughter to get together with Fuller, who was 19.

Lewis admits she left the door of the family trailer in rural Pittsylvania County open in 2002 so the two young accomplices could enter and shoot her husband and his 25-year-old son, who was in the military.

All three pleaded guilty. The triggermen got life in prison, but Lewis, who was deemed fit to stand trial, was sentenced to death as the mastermind of the killings, or in the words of the judge "the head of this serpent."

His summation is far from the portrayal that Lewis supporters offer -- that of a borderline mentally disabled woman, who struggled with a behavioral dependency disorder and was addicted to prescription drugs. [...]

Lewis's lawyers argue that new evidence, including her low IQ, has appeared since her trial that should prevent her execution.

The key piece of evidence they want considered is a letter from Shallenberger, who killed himself in jail in 2006, in which he claims full responsibility for the murder plot and suggests he pushed Lewis into it.

"From the moment I met her I knew she was someone who could be easily manipulated," he allegedly wrote. "Killing Julian and Charles Lewis was entirely my idea. I needed money, and Teresa was an easy target."

I hasten to say that the killings are not to be condoned in any way; nor should Teresa Lewis' role in them be ignored. But is there any reason why life in prison without possibility of parole shouldn't be the more just punishment for a woman with a low IQ whose partners in crime received only this punishment, and no more? Does Lewis pose an ongoing threat to society? Does executing her protect the people of Virginia in any way?

What do you think?


  1. "Does Lewis pose an ongoing threat to society? Does executing her protect the people of Virginia in any way?"

    If no. And that is why she is being punished, then neither should she be in prison.

  2. It is not our business to decide how the State should exercise its authority regarding punishment, as long as it does legitimately and in accord with proportion. It is up to the State to decide if she is mentally capable of being culpable for the crime. If so, then it is legitimate. If she is somehow below the mental capacity for culpability, then the State should probably withhold from the death penalty. As far as her being able to hurt someone else, that is secondary in nature regarding punishment. Rendering someone incapable of hurting someone else only prevents a future crime from happening by the individual, punishment is demanded because of the crime the person committed in the past, and that must also be carried out for the restoration of the moral order, retribution and so forth. The punishment is up to the State to decide.

  3. @love the girls - the options for keeping the people of Virginia safe are not limited to execution or acquittal. The question is, is execution necessary to keep Virginians safe.

  4. @Matthew Bellisario - in a democratic republic, it is exactly our business to decide how the State should exercise its authority. We, as citizens and as voters and as participants in our own government, are personally responsible (albeit indirectly, most of the time,) for the actions of the government we elect and support.

    Also, while deciding the kind of punishment to impose on criminals is indeed under the purview of the State, it is not something the State can decide arbitrarily. The State is bound by its own laws and, more importantly, by God's law. The State is only legitimate insofar as it acts in accordance with the moral law God placed in Nature.

    Therefore, just because the State says, "We shall execute criminal X," this does not mean we cannot or should not question the State and hold it accountable. Indeed, in a democratic republic, we have a duty to do so.

  5. Robert writes : "the options for keeping the people of Virginia safe are not limited to execution or acquittal."

    Nor is that what I wrote. What I did do is point out that the reason given for execution leads to not acquittal, but to her not being imprisoned if the reason for imprisonment is risk of further harm to others by her.

    Robert writes : "The question is, is execution necessary to keep Virginians safe"

    Is imprisonment of her necessary to keep Virginians safe? You ask if she should be executed while apparently thinking it's ok to imprison her. I question whether she should be imprisoned at all, let alone executed, if the reason for her being in prison is risk of a future crime committed by her.

    If she is not a risk, and she is being imprisoned because she is a risk, then her imprisonment is cruel, because she certainly doesn't appear to be a risk to Virginians.

  6. My wife just informed me that the woman sold her daughter as part of the payment, thus meeting the love the girls threshold of automatic execution. While pimps deserve to die for their crimes, this woman went far beyond that crime to sell her own flesh and blood. Death is the least she deserved.

  7. If I had to explain the logic behind contemporary Church teaching on the death penalty (as described in the Catechism 2266-2267)to the best of my (admittedly limited) understanding, I would do so as follows: death is a legitimate punishment for those crimes that deserve such a severe penalty. However, mercy is a Christian virtue and respect for the human person, even if that person is a murderer, prompts us to strive for that person's reform rather than for his or her death. Given that in a developed country such as the United States we have a sufficiently effective penal system that we can keep criminals isolated from society without killing them, showing mercy and giving criminals a chance to redeem themselves poses a relatively low risk to the society that the civil authorities are responsible for protecting.

    I welcome correction from those more knowledgeable in these matters than I am--I am, to an extent, making a (I hope reasonable) inference as to the logic behind the Catechism's teaching on this point--but this is my sense of Church teaching on the death penalty. At the very least, Church teaching discourages the death penalty from being used when alternate punishments are available.

    With this in mind, I think Teresa Lewis should not have been executed for the simple reason that no one in the United States should be executed: the death penalty ought to be abolished in the country and replaced with severe, but still lesser, punishments such as life in prison. I think this for the reasons given above about Church teaching and also because of practical problems with capital punishment, not least of them the fact that innocent people have ended up on death row.

    The most notorious case in recent memory was that of Anthony Porter, a retarded man who was sentenced to death in Illinois and spent around 15 years in prison before being exonerated because faculty and students at Northwestern University established his innocence. Porter is one of 20 death row inmates in Illinois to have been found innocent. In Lewis' state of Virginia, Marvin Anderson spent 15 years in prison for a sexual assault crime that he never committed. These kinds of stories do not encourage confidence in giving civil authorities to power to execute people.

    Teresa Lewis was, I presume, guilty as charged, unlike these men I have mentioned above. Neverthless, she should not have been executed--indeed, no one should be executed in this country--both because of the need to show mercy and because of criminal justice system's fallibility.

  8. @ltg - Let me clarify: The question is, is execution necessary to keep Virginians safe - given that imprisonment is available as a means to keep Virginians safe.

    Was she at risk to commit further crime and do further damage to her neighbors? There is at least a theoretical possibility. But execution is not justified solely as a means to prevent future crime. By that reasoning, we all should face the noose or the needle.

    Rather, Catholic teaching is that execution is a last resort, when all other methods of defending society from a malefactor are inadequate.

    Hence my statement that Virginia had other options besides setting her free and killing her.

    Am I making sense?

  9. I suspect an IQ of 70+ is not sufficient reason to rule out the death penalty. An IQ of above 70 is not considered mentally retarded. Actually an IQ of such alone does not make such a diagnosis. You need to look at something called adaptive functioning also. Look it up.

    Such individuals with IQ's in the 70's hold jobs, marry, have children and commit crimes all the time. An IQ in the 70's does not rule out taking a role in the community and paying the price for wrongs against the community.

    You can argue other reasons, but this is not a good one.

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  11. "With this in mind, I think Teresa Lewis should not have been executed for the simple reason that no one in the United States should be executed: the death penalty ought to be abolished in the country and replaced with severe, but still lesser, punishments such as life in prison."

    Based on what logic? In order to make a case for outlawing execution completely in the US or any civil society, you would have to prove that it is immoral to carry it out as a punishment. It is obvious that it is not immoral to do so, so abolishment is not a tenable argument. Sure we can call for a more prudent use of it. Mercy cannot be mercy if there is no justice. A just punishment for murder is execution. True the State does not have to go through with it, but in order for the State to keep the moral order it is not out of the question to use it. I and others have tried to explain capital punishment to you in light of Catholic teaching over the past 2000 years many times on this blog, and you will not listen, so I will not attempt to do so again. Let it be sufficient to say that there is more to it than what is briefly gone over in the New Catechism.

  12. Phillip - Thanks for the clarification on the IQ question. I concede that claims of mental retardation might not be appropriate in the case of Teresa Lewis.

    Matthew Belisario - I did not mean to cause any frustration or irritation. If I did not take into account interpretations of Church teaching on the death penalty offered by you or others in the past, this was not the result of any willful obstinacy on my part but of the more prosaic fact that I might not have been aware of these interpretations or might need a reminder as to their content. I rarely post to this site, do not always read all the combox entries, and, when I do read them, do not always read them closely. If they contain key arguments, however, I will take another look at past comments.

  13. Robert,

    Last resorts can also be the first chosen because circumstance dictates it to be the only viable option because the punishment is not only for the protection of society against Theresa Lewis, but because punishment is promulgated to make all men good by punishing those who break the law.

    Banishing her to a small concrete box, a very unmerciful existence, would no doubt be sufficient to protect society from her no matter how dangerous she is, or was. But would that punishment protect society because the law exists not to punish, but to prevent those who would murder from acting on that disposition.

  14. The main point is, punishment is not only to prevent future crime, but first and foremost to make reparation and provide a form of retribution for the crime committed by the person in order to restore and keep the moral order. When a punishment is carried out that fits the crime committed, naturally it becomes a deterrent to others, which is important to keep order in society. Of course it goes without saying that we need to keep the criminal form carrying out future crime, but that is not the first principle in carrying our punishment.

  15. Having gone back and read the arguments on one of the earlier posts on the death penalty, I think I now have a better handle on the argument that Matthew, and perhaps others, are making. The key points, as I understand them, are as follows:

    i) Justice demands that the civil authorities punish wrong-doers for their evil actions (thereby providing "a form of retribution for the crime committed by the person in order to restore and keep the moral order," as Matthew says above).

    ii) When wrong-doers are punished, the punishment ought to be proportionate to the offense

    iii) Some offenses are so severe that the proportionate punishment is death

    iv) This task of punishing a wrongful action is the primary purpose of the death penalty--not preventing the wrong-doer from committing further crimes or other utilitarian considerations.

    v) As long as someone is genuinely guilty of a crime that merits the punishment of death, administering the death penalty is legitimate, even if it is unnecessary for the purpose of preventing the guilty party from committing future crimes.

    vi) To show mercy to the justly condemned is (or at least might be) commendable but not obligatory.

    This is a plausible line of argument (and please correct me if I have misunderstood key points in it). I have some questions, however:

    a) Given the variety of crimes that have been punishable by death in different societies, both today and in the past, how does one determine the crimes for which the death penalty is the proportionate punishment?

    b) Is it wrong to execute someone for whose crime death is not a proportionate punishment?

    c) Granting that the fundamental purpose of the death penalty is to punish an offense and thereby restore the moral order, would it be wrong for the relevant civil authorities always to show mercy to the condemned? Does justice demand that mercy not always be granted but that, at least some of the time, someone whose crime deserves death actually receives this punishment?

    If Matthew or anyone else would care to answer these questions, I would be interested in the responses.

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  17. First I would say that the State determines the punishment in accordance with the crime committed. So Richard Ramirez, AKA the Night Stalker who murdered and raped at least 13 little girls and women deserves no less than execution. If we look at the cases in the US, I do not think that anyone can offer an objection based on proportion. Only the most severe crimes here receive the death penalty. It is more or less common sense. Most people can understand that shoplifting a sucker from a convenient store does not warrant death to restore the moral order. It has become more heated dealing with cases such as kidnapping and so forth, but in general it has been pretty consistent in the US. Since we are debating the US in this string we should stick to the US as our example.

    Two, I think it would be a moral injustice to use the death penalty out of proportion and all of the Thomstic moral theology books that I have read are perfectly clear that the punishment must be proportionate to the crime. You should not give someone a life sentence for taking a soda from the store.

    As far as mercy is concerned, there can only be mercy if there is justice to forego or abstain from. So if we completely outlaw Capital Punishment in the US, as so many Catholics want to do today, where is the justice that is owed to the families, the State, the victims and society? Why take something away from the State that it rightly retains to restore and keep the moral order? Finally, we must ask ourselves this question. Does God always act in accordance with mercy, or does he at times exact His justice?

  18. Matthew: Thanks very much for your response, I appreciate it. I have some further thoughts/questions of my own.

    If imposing a punishment disportionate to the offense is unjust (and you and I agree that it is), then any Catholic in a position to impose punishments, or otherwise to affect the punishments given to an offender, would want to be reasonably confident that the punishment is indeed proportionate to the offense.

    I daresay that rigorous precision is not possible in answering these kinds of questions, but I would still want a guide to which offenses deserve which punishments. I can understand why someone would argue that the crimes of Richard Ramirez or Teresa Lewis deserved death, and that crimes such as shoplifting candy or sodas do not. Between such extremes, however, lie gray areas: you mentioned the example of kidnapping; earlier in this string, Love the Girls seemed to say that pimping deserved the death penalty; I had a teacher who once said drug dealers ought to be shot. Intuitive or commonsensical judgments about which crimes deserve death seems fairly subjective. Something more precise is called for, I think, if we are not to impose unjust punishments--or, some might argue, to fail to impose just ones.

    I also think we need to consider the application of the death penalty outside the United States in the 21st century. If the death penalty in the United States is generally limited to murderers or those guilty of treason, while in other countries it can also be used to punish adultery or sodomy, and in 16th-century Europe was sometimes a punishment for vandalism or operating an unlicensed printing press, then that suggests two possible conclusions: i) the application of the death penalty in the United States is too narrow and should be broadened, or, ii) broader applications of the death penalty in other times and places were either wrong altogether or were right in their contexts but not in the contemporary United States. The latter possibility suggests that some kind of historical development of the ethics of punishment is possible.

    This post might be a bit confused--my apologies, if so. I suppose I am trying to dig a bit deeper into the issues I raised earlier of how to determine proportionate punishment and what the significance of varying practices is. If nothing else, perhaps this post can useful as a contribution to further discussion.

  19. John, I've been reading your conversation with Matthew, and I just wanted to take a moment to say that I don't personally agree with Matthew on this issue. I do think that Christian governments have a duty to consider mercy as well as justice, and that given the Catechism's discussion of the death penalty we should at least be open to the possibility that it ought to be rarely applied, if at all.

    The duty of secular authorities in that regard would be, as you suggest, to set limits as to what are and what are not capital offenses. But I think you're getting at something very interesting--where, exactly, ought that line to be drawn? Older civilizations, including Christian ones, had no problem with the idea that the just punishment for theft was execution, but we find that idea pretty abhorrent now.

    In any case, thanks for bringing up some interesting points, and I'll continue to read this debate even if I'm unable to comment further.

  20. Since 1976 only 1221 criminals have been executed. There are over 2.3 million people in prison at this moment in the US with about 17% being convicted of murder. How rare do you want it to be? After all, unrepentant guys like Richard Ramirez who mocked the victim's families in court after savagely raping their family members and then murdering them, shouldn't be considered for the just punishment he deserves, right? Anyone arguing that the State should not have the right to exact the death penalty on such monsters is in my opinion not in touch with reality, and they have no sense of what it means to keep the moral order or any idea of the importance of restoring justice to society in general. That is my opinion on the matter. In the US it is rare and it is used on the most extreme cases, so there is not much more to be said about it.

  21. Red: Thanks very much. It is always nice to hear that someone is interested.

    Matthew: Thanks for the statistics on executions in the United States: I had read that a relatively small percentage of offenders received the death penalty, but it is good to have further information (what is the source of this info?).

    I have no desire to deny or minimize the vile, horrific behavior of Richard Ramirez or other criminals. What I am trying to get at--and to an extent I have been figuring this out as this discussion string has unfolded--is that I wonder whether

    a) the kind of justice done by the State when it punishes a criminal is connected to, or rooted in, the State's overall responsibility to protect society, and

    b) the appropriate punishment for criminals depends on the practical requirements of protecting society.

    In another words, I wonder whether the distinction, discussed earlier in the string, between punishing criminals for past crimes and protecting society from future crimes is something of a false distinction: perhaps these two considerations are intertwined more closely than that.

    If so, this could provide an explanation for why the death penalty was viewed as an appropriate punishment for crimes that today we would, as Red points out, be horrified if they were punished by death. Perhaps when protecting society from a criminal could only be accomplished by killing the criminal, then the death penalty was the just, proportionate punishment. When execution was no longer necessary, it was no longer just and proportionate, maybe?

    Again, this is speculative and I might be skating on thin ice because I am not a moral theologian (indeed, I have never even taken a course in moral theology). I think, though, that something like this train of argument might allow us to reconcile past judicial practice and norms with present ones--and maybe past Church attitudes toward the death penalty with more contemporary ones.

    Anyway, that is my thought, for whatever it is worth.

  22. Hi John, it may be easier to check out the two articles I have written on the subject rather than have me write everything over again over here. The first article here deals with the principles of punishment as understood traditionally in Catholicism. The second article deals with the attempts by modern theologians to completely change these principles. These two articles are a summary of my position on capital punishment in light of consistent Catholic teaching, grounded in Thomistic moral theology. Feel free to leave comments on them if you wish.

    Article 1.

    Article 2

  23. Matthew: Thanks for the links. I will take a look.