NEW VOICES: John Grisham Asks-- Why is Teresa Lewis on Death Row?

Acclaimed author John Grisham recently published an op-ed in the Washington Post questioning why Teresa Lewis is facing the death penalty when both her co-defendants, two men who actually committed the killings, were given life-without-parole sentences.  According to Grisham, the judge who sentenced Lewis to death mistakenly believed that she was the “mastermind” behind the killings. However, it has now been revealed that her IQ of 72 makes her borderline intellectually disabled, that she suffered from a dependent personality disorder and other addictions, and that she lacked the basic skills necessary to organize a conspiracy to commit murder for hire. Grisham wrote, “In this case, as in so many capital cases, the imposition of a death sentence had little do with fairness. Like other death sentences, it depended more upon the assignment of judge and prosecutor, the location of the crime, the quality of the defense counsel, the speed with which a co-defendant struck a deal, the quality of each side's experts and other such factors. In Virginia, the law is hardly consistent." Read full op-ed below.

Death Row Chaplain is Certain: "This Woman Doesn't Deserve to Die"

Teresa Lewis is scheduled to be executed on September 23 in Virginia, the first woman to be executed in that state in a century.  But Lynn Litchfield, the former prison chaplain who came to know Lewis over six years, has said she "doesn't deserve to die."  Litchfield recently wrote in Newsweek Magazine that Lewis "has an IQ of 72" and that "one of the the two men who carried out the killings admitt[ed] that it was he, not she, who masterminded the murders" of her husband and adult stepson. Ms. Lewis has taken full responsibility for her role in the crime. The men who actually carried out the killings were given life sentences, while Lewis pleaded guilty and received a death sentence. The former chaplain's complete column in Newsweek's "My Turn" is below.

Woman with Mental Disabilities Facing Execution in Virginia

An execution date of September 23 was recently set for Teresa Lewis, the only woman on Virginia’s death row. Although a number of other people were involved in the same crime, including the actual shooters of the two victims, Lewis was the only person sentenced to death.  She pled guilty at trial.  Since being sent to death row in 2002, Lewis has taken responsibility and apologized for her actions.  She has had an exemplary record while in prison and does not appear to be a future danger if she remained there.  Her current attorneys have pointed to her low IQ (measured as low as 72) and her vulnerability to being led by others as mitigating factors for the crime.  She has a Dependent Personality Disorder and suffered from other mental disabilities at the time of the crime.  If her execution goes through, Lewis would be the first woman to be executed in Virginia since 1912 and the first in the United States since 2005.

Tennessee Governor Commutes Death Sentence of Gaile Owens

On July 14, Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen commuted the death sentence of Gaile Owens to life in prison. Owens, who was sentenced to death in 1986 for hiring a man to kill her husband, had accepted a deal to plead guilty to the crime in exchange for a sentence of life in prison. However, the man who did the killing refused to plead guilty, and prosecutors then rescinded the deal for Owens.  Both co-defendants were sentenced to death.  In deciding to commute her sentence to life in prison, Governor Bredesen said the decision was based in part on the plea bargain that was later withdrawn and the possibility that Owens was abused by her husband. Governor Bredesen said, “Nearly all the similar cases we looked at resulted in life-in-prison sentences.” John Seigenthaler, formerly on staff at the Tennessean, said of her case, “As heinous as the crime was, the record of how Tennessee has dealt with similar cases over the last century makes it clear that her death would have been a terrible miscarriage of justice."

FOREIGN NATIONALS: British National Faces Execution in Texas

When citizens of other countries are arrested in the U.S., special notification procedures are required under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, a treaty that the U.S. has signed and ratified.  These same procedures apply to U.S. citizens arrested in other countries.  There are over 130 people on death row in the U.S. from other countries, and many of them were not afforded their notification rights under the Vienna Convention.  Linda Carty is a British national on Texas' death row from St. Kitts.  She could face execution if her request for a retrial is denied.  She currently has a petition before the U.S. Supreme Court claiming she received inadequate representation during her original trial and that the United Kingdom could have provided additional legal support if the proper procedures had been followed in her case. Carty's attorneys assert that Texas authorities neglected to inform the British Consulate that she held a UK dependent-territory passport. Carty has always maintained her innocence of the murder that placed her on death row.

Battered Woman on Tennessee Death Row at Critical Juncture

Gaile Owens is currently on death row in Tennessee and awaiting a decision from the Tennessee Supreme Court on a request to reduce her sentence to life. Owens's attorneys have asked the state's high court to remove the death penalty because her case presents unique circumstances that warrant the rare move.  Owens may face execution soon for soliciting the 1985 murder of her husband, Ronald Owens, a man she said repeatedly abused her. Sidney Porterfield, whom she hired to kill her husband, is also currently on death row. Owens accepted an offer from the prosecutor to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, but the prosecutor backed out of the agreement when Porterfield would not accept the same plea. Owens and Porterfield were tried and sentenced to death together, after a judge refused to try their cases separately. Owens is the only inmate on death row who agreed to a plea bargain for a life sentence.

ARBITRARINESS: Different Outcomes in Similar Murder Cases in Tennessee

Gaile Owens (pictured) and Mary Winkler are two women who committed similar crimes under similar circumstances in Tennessee. Both women suffered from abuse from the spouses they killed, and both were examined by the same psychologist, twenty years apart.  The psychologist said both women suffered from battered woman's syndrome. Mary Winkler confronted her husband with a shotgun and shot him in the back in 2006. Gaile Owens hired a stranger to kill her husband.  Winkler was indicted for first-degree murder, convicted of voluntary manslaughter and served about two months in a mental health facility. She is now free and has custody of her children. Owens is on death row, awaiting execution by lethal injection.

According to an article by John Seigenthaler in the Tennessean, "The dramatic difference in the sentences received by Winkler and Owens relates directly to the manner in which the two cases were tried, how their separate teams of lawyers handled their cases and how two different judges dealt with their 'battered woman' defenses."  Winkler testified on her own behalf regarding the abuse she suffered, while Owens did not take the stand in order to protect her children from hearing the details of her abuse. Winkler was represented by experienced criminal lawyers, whose expenses were paid by her friends. Owens, on the other hand, had trouble finding legal representation. Her first lawyer withdrew from the case because she could not pay him. Perhaps the starkest difference between the two cases were the women's pleas. Winkler pled not guilty on the basis that she was a battered wife. Owens accepted the prosecutor's plea deal in return for a life sentence, but the prosecutor subsequently refused to accept the agreement when Owens's co-defendant would not accept the same plea. They were tried and sentenced to death together.

STUDIES: Death Penalty for Female Offenders

The latest issue of the report, “Death Penalty for Female Offenders,” has been released by Professor Victor Streib of the Ohio Northern University School of Law.  The report includes national trends regarding women and the death penalty and case details about individual female death row inmates from 1973 through June 30, 2009.  The report notes that while women account for one in ten murder arrests (10%), only one in forty-nine death sentences imposed at trial are for women (2%); women account for one in sixty-two people on death row (1.6%), and only one in one hundred and six (0.9%) of people actually executed in the modern era have been women.  Additionally, almost half of the women now on death row were sentenced in domestic cases, with the victims being husbands, boyfriends, or their children.  The leading states for sentencing women to death in the modern era are Texas (19), California (18), Florida (17), and North Carolina (16).  The full report may be read here.