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Watching Teresa Lewis die

Veteran Washington Post staff writer Maria Glod was a media witness to the execution of Teresa Lewis on Thursday night. Lewis was the first woman executed by Virginia in nearly 100 years. Here is her account of the event:

Three weeks ago I met convicted murderer Teresa Lewis in prison. Her husband and stepson died because of her, and she wept. She told me was scared that her daughter hated her, and that she longed to see her baby grandson grow up. We were separated by glass and her wrists were cuffed, but she tucked her fingers through the narrow slot in the window and reached out to grasp my hand.

On Thursday night, I watched her die.

I volunteered to be a media witness to Lewis's execution because I believe that, if our society chooses to execute murderers, we must face that choice and the details of how we carry out those killings. It is not for me to say whether the punishment was just, but it's my job to describe what I saw.

Still, in the days before, I dreaded going.

I don't pretend I knew Teresa Lewis. We only talked once for an hour or so. But it was enough time to know she understood she had done terrible things, but there were people she loved who loved her. It is unsettling and upsetting to plan a day around a death that will occur at a predetermined time, in a predetermined place before an audience.

Virginia carries out its executions at 9 p.m. to give the condemned most of their last day to see family. I entered the prison at 7 p.m. with three other media witnesses. We met up with eight citizen witnesses, volunteers who carry out a task the law requires. Guards searched us and officials gave a description of the history of executions in Virginia. Teresa's would be the 344th since October 1908, they told us.

We each signed a brown leather-bound witness book. I noticed that Teresa's lawyer, Jim Rocap, a man who fought to save her and I knew would be devastated by her death, had come in before us. Her spiritual adviser, a prison chaplain, was inside too.

About 8:40, we took a prison van to the death chamber, a sterile, drab, cinder-block area. We sat on plastic chairs in a tiered viewing room. Below us, separated by windows, was the gurney with white sheets and brown leather straps where Teresa Lewis would die.

To our right was a second viewing room. I could not see inside, but I knew that Kathy Clifton, a gracious and soft-spoken woman whose father and brother were murdered in a plot Teresa Lewis was a key part of, had planned to be there with her husband, mother-in-law and a close friend.

An execution brings all the pain and humanity of a tragic crime to one place and I felt that weight as I sat looking into the death chamber.

Clifton, who had lost her mother to illness and another brother in a car crash, had most of the rest of her tight-knit family wiped out the night Teresa Lewis let gunman in the house. I've never lost someone close to me at the hands of another and was very aware I couldn't comprehend the pain Clifton has endured. She told me she hoped the death sentence would bring her some peace and a way to move forward, and I hoped it would.

But Teresa Lewis's death also would also hurt people. She had a daughter, a son and a grandson. Rocap, Teresa's lifeline to the outside world for years, had come to know her as a gentle and simple person who was pulled into the crime by a conspirator. Prison chaplains and inmates told me that Teresa was a dear friend who mattered to them.

There were about a dozen officials or guards in the death chamber, all waiting to carry out a quick and efficient death. The entire time, someone held a red phone that went straight to Gov. Robert McDonell's office in case there was a last-minute reprieve. Another official had an off-white phone that went to the warden's office in case the U.S. Supreme Court intervened. I knew neither would happen.

We all sat in eerie silence, waiting.

At 8:50, Rocap and Chaplain Julie Perry walked in. They looked crushed and exhausted. Perry, who would stand the entire time, held what I supposed was a Bible. She clasped Rocap's hand.

The next five minutes were the hardest. We all watched minutes tick by on a clock over the door Teresa would enter. I looked back. Rocap's eyes were shut and he looked pained. I wondered what Kathy Clifton felt.

Teresa Lewis, wearing a light blue shirt, dark blue pants and flip flops, came through the door at 8:55, ushered by guards in blue uniforms who held her elbows. She looked toward us with a gaze that seemed dazed and anxious.

Within moments she was flat on the gurney. Several guards strapped her down. I never saw her face again.

At 8:58, officials drew a dark blue curtain across the window. Behind it, they attached the intravenous lines. We could not see or hear anything. Perry wept.

At 9:09 the curtain opened. Teresa's arms were now extended from her body with strips of white tape holding the tubes in. The warden asked Teresa if she had any final words. Her speech sounded garbled at first, but officials later told us she asked if Kathy Clifton was there.

Then she said clearly: "I just want Kathy to know that I love you and I'm very sorry."

The chemicals began flowing. In Virginia, the first is Thiopental Sodium, which renders the person unconscious. The second, Pancuronium Bromide stops breathing. The final chemical, Potassium Chloride, stops the heart.

Teresa Lewis's feet and toes twitched, then they stopped. I couldn't tell when she died.

Maria Glod

By Anita Kumar  | September 24, 2010; 12:11 PM ET
 
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Comments

Witnessing an execution is something one does not forget.

I am a proponent of the death penalty and had full confidence that the inmates before me were guilty of horrible crimes. It was not an event to cry over, but I remember leaving feeling let down that the recently executed made decisions in their life that ultimately led to be strapped down to that gurney or chair.

Posted by: vuac | September 24, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I am a resident of Scotland the country whose Minister of Justice released Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the person convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, on humanitarian grounds. This same country last carried out the death penalty in 1963. I do not believe I have the right to pass judgement on the judicial system of a another state. However, having read many comments on the death penalty, many of which could be attributed to be "knee jerk" reactions to the crime for which the accused had been sentenced, and which I have been found wanting in many cases, I ask this question: to what extent does the State have the right to kill one of its citizens and should the final decision on whether that citizen should live or die be left in the hands of individuals whose attainment, and goal, may be that of higher office which can only be achieved by appeasing the baying mob?

Posted by: timbergreens1 | September 24, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

I am a resident of Scotland the country whose Minister of Justice released Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the person convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, on humanitarian grounds. This same country last carried out the death penalty in 1963. I do not believe I have the right to pass judgement on the judicial system of a another state. However, having read many comments on the death penalty, many of which could be attributed to be "knee jerk" reactions to the crime for which the accused had been sentenced, and which I have been found wanting in many cases, I ask this question: to what extent does the State have the right to kill one of its citizens and should the final decision on whether that citizen should live or die be left in the hands of individuals whose attainment, and goal, may be that of higher office which can only be achieved by appeasing the baying mob?

Posted by: timbergreens1 | September 24, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Lewis was borderline retarded -- Virginia's limit is an IQ of 70, and she tested at 72. She was NOT the mastermind -- one of the two killers was. He wanted the insurance money and whatever other inheritance he could get Lewis to give him, and wrote a letter in prison admitting his motives and his delight that Lewis was so easily led.

The two men each shot one of Lewis's relatives. One killed her husband. One killed her 25-y-o stepson, who had a $350K insurance policy. The killers planned to benefit from that policy, and from her husband's estate, because one of them was having an affair with Lewis.

Lewis took no part in the shootings. The two shooters got life in prison. Only Lewis -- the woman who played no active role except for leaving a door unlocked -- received the death penalty.

This is not equal justice under the law. Her execution was a ritual murder carried out by Governor McDonnell, a human sacrifice to his political ambitions. Shame on him, and shame on every Virginian who didn't try to stop it.

Thanks to Maria Glod for her reportage. More shame on the state for trying to pretty it up by drawing the curtain on some of the proceedings.

And a little extra shame on McDonnell for his pretense of being "pro-life."

Posted by: ankhorite | September 24, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Silly Ankhorite, Teresa was not found guilty of being "mastermind of a murder". She plead guilty to the specific aggravating factor of initiating a "murder for hire". Her role beyond indicating she was willing go or would pay money to the gunmen after successfully murdering her intended victims was sufficient to constitute capital murder.

Or do you assume it was all a surprise to Teresa who figured when Shallenberger and Fuller came to the door of her trailer that night that they were out collecting for the Red Cross?

Posted by: vuac | September 24, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

Silly Timbergreens, there weren't citizens baying for Teresa Lewis' blood. In fact, no death penalty proponents showed up last night outside the prison to cheer the event as it occurred behind the locked gates. The usual loud but small rabble of death penalty abolitionists showed up (eleven of them) outnumbered by the media.

And something you may not know that is unique about Virginia, the governor can only serve one term. Bob McDonnell will not be on the ballot for reelection in 2013. If he is to be judged by the electorate, it will be on more consequential things, such as transportation, taxes and education issues, not his role in denying clemency to a murderer who openly professed her guilt.

Posted by: vuac | September 24, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

"Lewis was borderline retarded -- Virginia's limit is an IQ of 70, and she tested at 72."
Posted by: ankhorite
--------------------
That was the WORST score she could manage out of several tests administered, in which those administering the tests commented that she displayed an amazingly active disinterest in scoring well.

Posted by: OttoDog | September 24, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

I agree with "ankhorite" completely. And I want to add my generalized opinion as well. It is appalling that people condone the supposedly "legal" murder that occurs in these states that use the death penalty. Governors, judges, and executioners alike are all guilty of murder. Some of which even more so than Teresa Lewis. Spin it all you want. From what it sounds like "vuac" could very well be one of these people. Shameful.

Posted by: landonthegr8 | September 24, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

It is appalling that people condone the supposedly "legal" murder that occurs in these states that use the death penalty. Governors, judges, and executioners alike are all guilty of murder. Some of which even more so than Teresa Lewis. Spin it all you want. From what it sounds like at least one commenter of the posted comments could very well be one of these people. Shameful.

Posted by: landonthegr8 | September 24, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

Although I'm a proponent of the death penalty, I was a bit surprised, and even disconcerted that the state would pursue the ultimate punishment for this type of case--especially when the trigger men got life sentences. I think the death penalty should really be reserved for henious crimes, and high treason. This just did not seem appropriate.

Oh, if being mentally retarded is an automatic get out of the death penalty finding (and it should be), OF COURSE, their lawyers will advise and probably help instruct them on how to do as poorly as possile and plausible.

Posted by: gvkeitz | September 24, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Although I'm a proponent of the death penalty, I was a bit surprised, and even disconcerted that the state would pursue the ultimate punishment for this type of case--especially when the trigger men got life sentences. I think the death penalty should really be reserved for henious crimes, and high treason. This just did not seem appropriate.

Oh, if being mentally retarded is an automatic get out of the death penalty finding (and it should be), OF COURSE, their lawyers will advise and probably help instruct them on how to do as poorly as possile and plausible.

Posted by: gvkeitz | September 24, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Governors, judges, and executioners alike are all guilty of murder. Some of which even more so than Teresa Lewis. Spin it all you want. Shameful.

Posted by: landonthegr8
==========================
My gosh! Why stop there! Surely the juries, the voters that elect the officials, the prison guards who refuse to help the poor misunderstood killer escape are also ALL MURDERERS!!

Now buggar off like a good little chap, landonthegr8.

Work on your Clinton, Bush, CHeney, FDR are all murderers rant..

Posted by: ChrisFord1 | September 24, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

It's sad that the state perpetuated these acts of violence by killing yet another human being. It's barbaric and uncivilized. Think this death will usher in some kind of peace to the victims or make the world a more just and better place? It won't. We all just got a little bit worse.

Posted by: DCLawyer1 | September 24, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

The issue here is accountability. Teresa Lewis made a conscious, pre-meditated decision to participate in murder. She could have stopped it up until the time it occurred. There is no question that, having taken the lives of others, she has forfeited the right to her own life.

I am glad that she apparently became a Christian after committing her crime. If so, she is in heaven with Jesus. Her sins are forgiven. She is not a murderess in heaven but a child of God.

This, however, does not make her any less acoountable for her actions before a human court of law.

Posted by: InTheMiddle | September 24, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

The death penalty is used not for the goal of feeling better. It is a final consequence for murder with aggravating circumstances.

Murder for hire can break either way as to whom gets the needle and who gets life imprisonment. About a decade ago, Mario Murphy was executed at Greensville for being one of several men who beat James Radcliff to death at the behest of his estranged wife Robin. Robin subsequently ran off with another perp Gerardo Hinojosa to elope after which the plot details came to light. Six people were arrested for capital murder, including Murphy, Hinojosa and Radcliff. Hinojosa avoided trial and a death sentence with a guilty plea, Radcliff went to trial, was convicted but sentenced to life while Murphy was convicted and sentenced to death.

Then there is the current case of Justin Wolfe. The youthful drug dealer from Prince William County owed a substantial amount of money to dealer Daniel Petriole. Wolfe hired Owen Barber to gun down Petriole in front of his townhouse. Barber did the job and fled Virginia. When later arrested, Barber quickly reached a plea deal with the Commonwealths Attorney. Barber, the trigger man, received a 35 year sentence in return for testifying against Wolfe (who was not present at the crime scene), who was sentenced to death for contracting a murder to hire.

Trigger man rule has to have an exception for murder for hire. If it did not there would be a lot more folks hiring others to off their rivals.

Posted by: vuac | September 24, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Ankhorite you are so blinded by ignorance you would not know what is true justice. She was indeed the mastermind and knew exactly what she was getting herself into. She obviously had to tell the other two about her husbands and stepsons insurance money otherwise they would have never known and this tragic event never would have happened. 2nd, she gave the two money so they could go out and purchase the weapons in which they used to shoot the victims. And 3rd, she willingly left the door unlocked while lying in bed knowing perfectly well what was going to happen. She was indeed behind the murders and got what she deserved.

Posted by: capsfan10 | September 24, 2010 5:33 PM | Report abuse

As harsh as it may sound it really does not matter what crime Teresa Lewis did not or did not commit, or for that matter any of the other examples provided here. For discussing those details merely obfuscates the real issue, which is perhaps what the State and proponents of premeditated killing want?

The real issue is that any individual, group of persons, country that openly advocates execution as a legitimate form of punishment is not humane.

True power and wisdom is derived from being able to say no I will not kill you in this circumstance because yours is a human life. It may be what people feel or think they want the 'baying dogs' syndrome. But, is it what they need?

Of course politicians always pander to their own vanity in giving people what they feel they want as the Governor of Virginia amply demonstrated on 9/23.

Until the USA full refutes capital punishment as form of punishment it will retain the flavor of a third world country with with serious human rights issues.

Posted by: sampepys | September 24, 2010 5:36 PM | Report abuse

I was a media witness at the first execution in George W. Bush's tenure as Texas governor, in 1995. The entire process is wrong, wrong, wrong:

http://thepoliticalenvironment.blogspot.com/2010/09/capital-punishment-lottery-finds-loser.html

Posted by: jermke | September 24, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

President Ahmadinejad has called the execution hypocritical after the U.S Government condemned the death sentence of an Iranian woman.

I don't believe sentencing anybody to death is humane or justified, so any Government that allows execution are committing an act an evil.
Two wrongs do not make a right.

President Ahmadinejad is correct, yet wrong if his Government carry out the execution of the Iranian woman. If America wants to enter the real World of humanity and forgiveness, then the U.S should start at home, not preach to others.
Much worse murders happen in the U.K but execution is not punishment considered appropriate. Not in a civilized World anyway...

Posted by: RussellWyllie-Youtubecom-GlobalPrison | September 24, 2010 6:31 PM | Report abuse

Who cares. It's only a matter of time before Odumba and his liberal dictatorship starts executing nay sayers and political opponents....

Posted by: WildBill1 | September 24, 2010 7:06 PM | Report abuse

Jermike - Texas governors have almost no involvement in executions in that state. Judges of the trial court of conviction sign the death warrants. Governors do not have clemency powers, unless authorized by a majority vote of the Board of Pardons. The Governor is limited to issuing a single 30 day stay of execution.

Posted by: vuac | September 24, 2010 8:20 PM | Report abuse

Friends, let us not forget what our old friend Socrates taught us. Everyone agrees that what Teresa Lewis did was wrong. However, if the state executes a convicted murderer, do two wrongs make a right?

Posted by: Bobgrapes25 | September 24, 2010 8:32 PM | Report abuse

The author states "It is unsettling and upsetting to plan a day around a death that will occur at a predetermined time, in a predetermined place before an audience."

For some, it is. For others, it's only unsettling and upsetting after the fact, as was the case with Lewis and her two fellow murderers.

Teresa Lewis planned a day around two deaths which she knew would occur at a predetermined time, in a predetermined place, before an audience. Her. And two fellow murderers.

Posted by: KJF916 | September 24, 2010 9:06 PM | Report abuse

rowing against the current.
I believe that murderers like the Oklahoma Bomber, serial killers, people who intentionally cripple, kill or rape children, thugs who break into old folks' homes and beat and rob them, and those who are criminally insane threats to society - - -should be removed. By that I don't mean fed, housed with medical care and entertained by us in prisons... I mean "removed" in the sense of eliminated. The fact of repeated rapes and murders by criminals who should have been REMOVED from society blows the mind. Madness; thanks to the superstitious human "soul" myth. Insanity!

Posted by: lufrank1 | September 24, 2010 9:09 PM | Report abuse

This whole affair fills me with sadness--for the families of the two murder victims, for Teresa Lewis, and for the state of "civil" discourse in this country.

Posted by: tryphenapaul | September 24, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse

Rest in peices. I love this sympathy that she was a moron. Thanks be that all these animals are morons or they wouldn't be caught, but that doesn't keep them from committing these crimes. She hired a hit man to gain the insurance? Oldest crime in the book. This was a good kill. Live with it, Lefties. If it was your family, you'd feel the same way.

Posted by: JamesChristian | September 24, 2010 10:25 PM | Report abuse

Ding dong, the witch is dead, the wicked witch is dead!!

:)

Posted by: RobInVaBeach | September 25, 2010 12:00 AM | Report abuse

I believe society has a right to protect itself. My only issue with the death penalty is that we must do everything we can to make sure we are executing guilty criminals. That includes using DNA evidence that comes available after all appeals have been exhausted. It also includes budgeting enough money that indigent defendants get competent public defender representation.

Since no one argues that Teresa Lewis was unjustly convicted, I find no reason to lose any sleep over her execution. Good riddance!

Posted by: rb-freedom-for-all | September 28, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

"It also includes budgeting enough money that indigent defendants get competent public defender representation."
Posted by: rb-freedom-for-all | September 28, 2010 11:42 AM

I agree; however, executions are already costing enough taxpayer money with the lawyers that are currently being given to defendants.
http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/costs-death-penalty
I don't know the credibility of that source but it is a source I use frequently. If you browse through that website, especially this link, it provides information pertaining to state-specific costs of death penalty cases.
http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/FactSheet.pdf
This is another link from the same source specifically stating that executions do, in fact, cost more than life in prison.
I am not trying to make a statement as to whether I believe that this sentence was fair or whether or not the death penalty is justifiable/not-justifiable. I am just raising the awareness of the costs in a death penalty case.
- Just something to think about.

Posted by: mica123 | September 29, 2010 1:43 AM | Report abuse

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