Olivarius: Our insane law

Culture Quotient

The year 1541 was difficult for King Henry VIII. He was getting older and fatter and increasingly nervous that he had only one frail son. The ulcer on his leg was a constant bother. Then he found out his young wife (number five) Catherine Howard was probably cheating on him with his favorite groomsmen, Thomas Culpeper. Henry immediately killed Culpeper and imprisoned Catherine. After some consternation, he passed an Act of Attainder — which determined her guilty of treason without a trial — that sent her to the chopping block. She was beheaded in the Tower of London on February 13, 1542.

Lady Jane Rochford, Catherine Howard’s lady-in-waiting, was beheaded after Catherine that morning. Evidence was allegedly uncovered during the investigation that she had arranged meetings between Catherine and Culpeper, also an act of treason, and thus, punishable with death.

As Jane awaited her trial in the Tower, things got complicated. After numerous interrogations and uncertainty, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was deemed too insane to stand trial. But the king wanted her dead, so he passed another Act of Attainder stating that she should be executed anyway, overturning a law banning execution of the insane.

Civilization has moved on since the times of Old King Henry. We are certainly more “humane” in our approach to capital punishment in the United States — a punishment reserved for the most heinous crimes.

Public executions don’t happen; executions happen behind closed doors in high security prisons with few witnesses. We have replaced the chopping block and axe man with lethal injection and alcohol swabs. Crowds used to relish in the blood and gore of a beheading, now we give the prisoner a barbiturate and muscle relaxant so they are fully unconscious before they receive the potassium chloride, which stops the heart. Americans are not given the death penalty without “full” legal recourse and certainly not on the whim of a grumpy king.

But common law tradition hasn’t disappeared from our legal system completely: Like the Tudors, we do not execute the insane because it constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment. In 2002, this provision was extended in Atkins v. Virginia, which ruled that executing the mentally retarded similarly violates the Eighth Amendment. Underlying both laws, is the notion that the state shouldn’t promote “purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering.”

Next Thursday, this belief will be tested. Teresa Lewis is set to be the first women in 98 years to be executed by the state of Virginia. Lewis, 40, pleaded guilty to hiring two men, Matthew Shallenberger and Rodney Fuller, to murder her husband and stepson in order to collect a $250,000 life insurance policy. She promised to split the money with Schallenberger, who needed the money to start a drug business in New York City.

Both shooters were given life sentences, but she was given the death penalty for being the “head of this serpent,” as Judge Charles Strauss described it.

No one disputes her guilt or the seriousness of her crime. But whether she should be put to death for it is a different matter.

She scored a 73 and 70 on two different IQ tests. These scores place her in the zone of “borderline intellectual functioning,” according to the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. If she had scored a 69, she would be considered to be mildly mentally retarded, and thus could not be executed.

This begs the question: What’s in one point?

And it just gets worse. According to three different forensic psychology experts, Teresa has “dependent personality disorder,” making it difficult for her to do even simple tasks without the help of others or to resist orders from others, particularly men. It’s not even clear that she was the mastermind behind this heinous act. Shallenberger wrote in a letter to another inmate that he met Teresa in a Wal-Mart, and “from the moment I met her I knew she was someone who could be easily manipulated. Killing Julian and Charles Lewis was entirely my idea. I needed money, and Teresa was an easy target.” Shallenberger has since committed suicide in prison, and for a variety of reasons Lewis’ defense team cannot use the letter as evidence in court.

Moreover, she’s barely been given “full” legal recourse. Under the advice from her counsel, Lewis pleaded guilty to the crime. However, though her lawyers say they had expected the judge to sentence her to a life in prison, they did not seek out a deal that guaranteed it, a highly risky and unusual move, especially in Virginia, which has the highest execution rate bar Texas.

And Thursday, she will be dead, unless Republican Governor Bob McDonnell grants her clemency.

Worst of all, while this case may represent one of the more egregious injustices, it is hardly unique. Last year, a New Yorker article highlighted the plight of Todd Willingham, who had been put to death in 2004, for a crime it now looks like he didn’t commit. Lewis will be killed over a single point on an IQ test. Had she committed the crime three hours north, in West Virginia, she couldn’t be killed at all.

We reserve the death penalty for the most heinous crimes and ones that are black and white; the Lewis case is most certainly grey.

Kathryn Olivarius is a senior in Branford College.


  • VAJustice

    Teresa Lewis isn’t retarded. She wrote a fairly well worded testimony of her faith, which is published on the web. She also likely was coached to flub questions on her IQ test to help lower her score.    That was the impression of one psychologist who administered the test, that the subject was “not putting forward her best effort”.  Teresa isn’t the brightest bulb, but she does understand and acknowledge her crime as well as that death is her punishment for that crime.    

    She isn’t lying in a puddle of her own waste, babbling incoherently at Fluvanna either, she is constantly participating  in interaction at prison church services.  Additionally, she did manage to graduate from high school and spent a semester at college.  

    These claims of retardation did not arise until *the eleventh hour of appeals*. Her role as active participant in these crimes is clear.

    She was an instigator of these crimes, she realized that she could gain $350,000 in life insurance benefits if both her husband Julian and stepson C.J. were to die. She sought out the men who could be the muscle to commit these crimes (Rodney Fuller and Matthew Shallenberger). She offered herself and her underage daughter Tiffany Bean sexually to the would be hit men as “downpayment” for their services as contract killers.

    Teresa spent $1,200 from her joint checking account to buy the firearms to be used in the killings. On the night of the crime, she left the back door unlocked to let the killers in and when Rodney Fuller came back into the living room saying that he had shot C.J. with a handgun but he was still alive, Teresa handed him the shotgun she had purchased and said, “this will finish the job”. As her husband Julian lay on the floor gravely, but not mortally wounded, Teresa sat by and drank an iced tea, waiting 45 minutes before calling 9-1-1. Her husband’s dying words to emergency responders, “my wife… She knows who done this to me”.

    Teresa is guilty of murder for hire and inept, but was well aware of what was going on in October, 2002.

  • FailBoat

    If she was competent enough to hire hitmen, she is competent enough to face the law. The mentally retarded individuals that I know wouldn’t know the first thing about hiring a hitman, much less committing insurance fraud.

  • chaseom2

    I am without the power to spare Teresa Lewis. But it is within my power to offer the author of this mighty column the commendation it so richly deserves. I commend it. I commend it.

  • juliaaverbuck

    Great column Kathryn, I always love your stuff.

  • isupportyou

    This is compelling and well-written. As an accomplished journalist myself, I salute you and this publication.

  • xxbravoxx

    I am shocked, both at the madness of the legal system and at the obvious brilliance of this journalist. Magnificent work.

  • JackJ

    Kathryn, will be seeing a similar article from you regarding abortion?

  • penny_lane

    “This begs the question: What’s in one point?” Um, no it doesn’t. It certainly raises the question, but it doesn’t beg it. Which editors let this glaring error slip through?

    (From Wikipedia, for the under-educated: “Begging the question…is a type of logical fallacy in which the proposition to be proved is assumed implicitly or explicitly in the premise.”)

    Also, I’m surprised that a champion of feminism such as Olivarius felt it necessary to mention that Lewis is the first woman in 98 years to be executed in Virginia. As a feminist, if the governor does grant her clemency, I hope her gender has nothing to do with it.

  • VAJustice

    Males represent a sizable majority of convictions for murder. They also are about 99% of the individuals executed by various states for the crime. Females who commit murder, it seems, often do not do it with the aggravating circumstances present for seeking the death penalty. In other words, there a few women who are committing armed robberies, rapes or kidnappings resulting in murders. Many homicides by females, I suspect, fall into the second degree (heat of the moment, aggravated) rather than first degree (premeditated) category, which is treated with less severity by the law.

    Had Teresa Lewis solely killed her husband by herself, the death penalty would not be on the table. However, she hired the two men to kill both her husband and son in law, both of which actions (murder for hire, multiple murders) are aggravating circumstances for seeking a capital murder (death eligible) charge in Virginia.

    There hasn’t been much sympathy or controversy extended to Lewis in the general public because she plead guilty and the facts of the case indicate she was a willing participant in aiding the commission of the murders. Handing one gunman a shotgun to “finish the job” and later drinking an ice tea and waiting 45 minutes to dial 911 as your spouse lays slowly bleeding to death in the same room isn’t a sign of someone who was “caught up” in the plot beyond their control.

    I don’t think anyone takes joy in Lewis’ pending execution, but it is something that must be done. The crime was so egregious and her role in instigating it so clear, she has to be punished for it.

  • chaseom2

    I have been reading, avidly, the responses to this mighty column. I wish, in the first place, to commend this column’s author again. But commendations aside:

    VAJustice and JackJ appear thirsty for the author of this mighty column to rewrite it – this blessing of thought and prose – according to their divergent specifications.

    VAJustice might note that his objections are not to the accuracy of an IQ test; Nor are they an impassioned explanation for why one number on such a test should be the relevant legal metric of life and death. Instead, VAJustice reiterates points conceded in the column: that Lewis was guilty, and that killing is atrocious as a human project.

    JackJ, it would seem, thinks that columns that object to the execution of a single human being, given the complexity of the law, and that of crime, are in some way related to a woman aborting an unwanted pregnancy.

    Again, I must commend the author.

  • DrStrangelove09

    Missing the point. 70 is as arbitrary cutoff as 69. There will always be a borderline, no matter where you set it, so there will always be borderline cases.

    A human life–even the life of a murderer–is too important to gamble away on a borderline. The solution is to join the ranks of every other developed democracy (with the exception of Japan) and get rid of the death penalty.

  • theantiyale

    ***Thou shalt not kill.***
    Not *sometimes.* Not *except in ‘just’ wars.*


    ***Thou*** means ***all human beings created by the Divine Commander** (.i.e. **G**enome’s **O**bscure **D**istributor)

    PS ***Vengeance is mine*** means not YOURS!

    [link text][1]

    [1]: http://theantiyale.blogspot.com “The-Anti-Yale”

  • riri145

    I’m sure you realize that you mistranslated the Hebrew, which says “Thou shalt not murder,” as opposed to “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s different verbs and very different meanings

  • theantiyale

    [link text][1]

    *” . . . The fact remains, however, that even the Jewish translators were not unanimous in maintaining a consistent distinctions between the various Hebrew roots.
    Don Isaac Abravanel and others noted that ratsah is employed in Numbers 35:27-30 both when dealing with an authorized case of blood vengeance, and with capital punishment–neither of which falls under the legal category of murder.
    In fact, some distinguished Jewish philosophers believed that “thou shalt not kill” is a perfectly accurate rendering of the sixth commandment. Maimonides, for example, wrote that all cases of killing human beings involve violations of the command, even if the violation happens to be overridden by other mitigating factors. It has been suggested that this tradition underlies the virtual elimination of capital punishment in Rabbinic law.
    Viewed from this perspective, we may appreciate that the translation “thou shalt not kill” was not the result of simple ignorance on the side of Jerome or the King James English translators. Rather, it reflects their legitimate determination to reflect accurately the broader range of meanings of the Hebrew root.
    As usual, careful study teaches us that what initially appeared ridiculously obvious is really much more complex than it seemed at first glance. We should be very cautious before passing hasty judgement on apparent bloopers.”*

    **From The Sources by Eliezer Segal**

    ~ Thou Shalt Not Kill ~
    Exodus 20:13 – Deuteronomy 5:17
    *The exact Hebrew wording of this biblical phrase is lo tirtzack which accurately translates as “any kind of killing whatsoever.”
    The exact Hebrew wording of this biblical phrase is lo tirtzack. One of the greatest scholars of Hebrew/English linguistics (in the Twentieth Century) -Dr. Reuben Alcalay – has written in his mammoth book the Complete Hebrew /English Dictionary that “tirtzach” refers to “any kind of killing whatsoever.” The word “lo,” as you might suspect, means “thou shalt not.”*

    **The Nazarene Way of Essenic Studies
    Email us at: Comments@TheNazareneWay.com
    Join our Essene Holy Communions email list
    Sign our Guest Book**

    [1]: http://theantiyale.blogspot.com “The Anti-Yale”

  • riri145

    The Alcalay isn’t a biblical dictionary, but the Segal source is quite interesting. I’ll have to look up the Maimonides and Abarbanel references. I’m also interested how those medieval commentators can reconcile the contradiction between a prohibition on any killing whatsoever and the bloodier parts of the Old Testament.

  • theantiyale

    **Try this on for size: The O.T. God’s command to perform GENOCIDE.

    **Deuteronomy 20:16-18GNT:** *16But when you capture cities in the land that the LORD your God is giving you, kill everyone. 17Completely destroy all the people: the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, as the LORD ordered you to do. 18Kill them, so that they will not make you sin against the LORD by teaching you to do all the disgusting things that they do in the worship of their gods.*

    Read the full chapter in GNT.

    **KJV:** *16But of the cities of these people, which the [Lord] thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: 17but thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Per´izzites, the Hivites, and the Jeb´usites; as the [Lord] thy God hath commanded thee: 18that they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the [Lord] your God.*
    Read the full chapter in KJV.

  • Jaymin

    So, it seems everything is becoming about God on this forum these days, huh?

  • The Anti-Yale

    You mean the author of the death penalty?