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.