Sentence of Only Va. Woman on Death Row Affirmed

June 7, 2010

A federal appeals court upheld the death sentence of the only woman on Virginia's death row Friday, increasing the likelihood that the state will execute a female for the first time in nearly 100 years.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled against Teresa Lewis, who was sentenced to death for plotting to have her husband and stepson killed in their Pittsylvania County home in 2002 so she could collect a $250,000 life insurance policy.

Prosecutors said Lewis used sexual favors and manipulation to persuade two men to kill her husband, Julian Clifton Lewis Jr., and stepson Charles J. Lewis, who was on leave from Army National Guard duty. The gunmen, Rodney Fuller and Matthew Shallenberger, were sentenced to life in prison.

Lewis took the advice of her trial attorneys, pleading guilty to capital murder and allowing a judge to determine her sentence. The attorneys believed that Lewis stood a better chance of getting a life prison term from the judge, who had never sentenced anyone to death, than from a Pittsylvania jury.

The judge found that Lewis would not pose a future danger to society but determined that her crime was sufficiently vile to warrant the death penalty.

Lewis, 40, would be the first woman executed in Virginia since 1912, when 17-year-old Virginia Christian died in the electric chair for suffocating her employer. She would be the first woman put to death in the U.S. since 2005, when Frances Newton died by injection in Texas.

Her attorney, James Rocap III, said he will petition the appeals court for a rehearing and appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

"We were obviously disappointed in the result and intend to vigorously pursue all avenues on Teresa's behalf," Rocap said.

In a hearing before the appeals court in March, Rocap argued that Lewis was too dependent on other people and prescription drugs to have plotted the murders. He said the trial lawyers' failure to raise dependency disorder and drug addiction as mitigating factors at sentencing violated Lewis' constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel.

However, the appeals court said there was conflicting expert testimony on those issues and plenty of evidence supporting the prosecution's portrayal of Lewis as a cold, cunning person who used sex and money to enlist others in a scheme to kill for money.

For example, Lewis offered herself and her 16-year-old daughter for sex with the two men, provided the money to buy the murder weapons, confined her pit bull in an empty bedroom to keep it from interfering, unlocked a door to let the men into her home and stood by while they shot her husband and stepson. She rummaged through her husband's pockets for money while he lay dying and waited nearly an hour before calling 911.

The court agreed with U.S. District Judge Glen Conrad's conclusion that given the gruesome nature of the crime and the mounting evidence against Lewis, the trial attorneys employed a reasonable defense strategy that should not be declared constitutionally deficient based simply on hindsight.

The panel also rejected Lewis' claim that her attorneys should have told her she could plead guilty and still be sentenced by a jury. The court said legal precedents cited by Lewis do not support that position, and even if they did, pressing the issue would have conflicted with the strategy to seek sentencing by a judge.

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