Two weeks ago, I wrote about the impending execution of Teresa Lewis, the first woman set to be executed by Virginia in almost 100 years. Despite pleas for clemency and a petition for a stay from the Supreme Court, Lewis was executed last Thursday by lethal injection.
The death penalty is not exceptional in this country, especially in Virginia. But the coverage of Lewis’s case was. Newspapers from Florida to California followed her final weeks. British newspapers and Ghanaian blogs debated the complexities of American capital punishment. Novelist John Grisham defended her in The Washington Post. Lewis even attracted the attention of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who chastised the Western media for devoting “millions of Internet pages” to Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman sentenced to stoning for adultery, but not caring about an American woman on death row.
Why did Lewis’ case garner so much attention?
She was undeniably guilty of an atrocious crime — hiring two gunmen to kill her husband and stepson for $250,000 of insurance money — and her mental competency was questionable, having scored 73 and 70 on two different IQ tests, placing her just above the level of mental retardation.
But what makes her case so different from that of Georgia prisoner Brandon Rhode, who was executed last Monday amid much less media hullabaloo?
Like Lewis, Rhode committed an atrocious crime — the murder of a man and his children. Rhode’s mental ability was also questionable. He suffered from organic brain damage and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, placing his mental competency far below normal levels. He also attempted suicide with a razor a few days before his execution.
But we cared about Teresa Lewis. Why?
Because she was a woman. Gender overshadowed our conversations , though we refused to actually talk about it.
Capital punishment is, and always has been, gender-biased. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, only 12 of the 1,228 people executed have been women. Of the 3,361 people on death row, only 61 are women. According to the Justice Department, women commit roughly one in 10 homicides, but they receive only 1.87 percent of the death sentences. So Lewis joined a very exclusive group last Thursday.
But obviously, no one is rejoicing over the fact that Lewis broke a glass ceiling.
Admittedly, women and men commit murder differently. Men are more likely to kill strangers and often do so while committing another crime, like rape or burglary — “aggravating factors” required in most states for a death sentence. Women are more likely to suffocate or poison their victims, who generally aren’t strangers. Men are also more likely to use violent methods like guns and knives for murder than women. There are many Ted Bundys and Sons of Sam; Aileen Wuornos is pretty unique.
Of the 12 women executed since 1976, eight of them were executed for the murder of their husband, partner or child. This suggests that our legal system deems the “worst” female criminals to be those that defy traditional female roles as good mothers and wives. Our press does too. The case of Andrea Yates, who drowned her five young children in the family bathtub garnered incredible media attention in 2001.
Teresa Lewis’s case fits into these patterns of gender bias. She didn’t pull trigger on relatives. She hired others to do that. The prosecution painted her as an unnatural wife for killing her husband and emphasized that she had pimped out her 16-year-old daughter to one of the shooters, making her a bad mother. So even though Teresa Lewis was far less likely to get the death penalty than a man, she was condemned to die for sexist reasons. As Richard Dieter, executive of the Death Penalty Information Center stated, “When women cross a certain line and are seen as going outside their societal role, they are considered particularly evil and dangerous.”
The way we treat women in our courtrooms calls into question our administration of justice for everyone.
Gender bias is in some ways the least problematic aspect of our justice system, which is riddled with inequalities. African-Americans make up 14 percent of the American population but represent 35 percent of the people executed since 1976. Despite laws protecting against this, 22 people have been given the death penalty for crimes they committed when they were juveniles. Since 1983, over 60 people with mental illness or retardation have been executed in the United States, and it is further estimated that about 10 percent of people on death row suffer from serious mental illness, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Focus.
Juries and judges seem to have many preconceptions — that men are violent and fit better the prototype for a Jeffery Dahmer-esque serial killer, that women are irredeemable after killing their husbands and children, that black men are especially dangerous and that some crimes are so terrible that neither mental illness nor youth can excuse them.
Teresa Lewis’ life obviously shouldn’t have been spared on the basis of her gender alone. And it wasn’t. But hopefully the discomfort America faced over her execution will force us to look at the greater problems with the death penalty system.