My Turn: Teresa Lewis Doesn't Deserve to Die

A view of an execution chamber from an adjacent witness room. Caroline Groussain / AFP-Getty Images

For six years, I regularly spent an hour talking and listening through a small slot in a metal door. On the other side was the only woman on death row in Virginia, an inmate who pleaded guilty to hiring two men to kill her husband and stepson, allegedly in exchange for a cut of the insurance money. Sometimes I was allowed to sit in a chair as I stooped down to hear her, give her communion, or just hold her hand; usually I alternated between half-squatting or kneeling on the concrete floor. As chaplain at Virginia's only maximum-security prison for women, I expected to minister under challenging circumstances. These visits were unbearable, however, and not because of the physical conditions. It was my feeling—at first fleeting, now certain—that this woman doesn't deserve to die.

On Sept. 23, barring the governor's unlikely pardon or the Supreme Court taking her case, Teresa Lewis will die in the electric chair or by lethal injection (she hasn't chosen). She lost a federal appeal earlier this summer, putting her in line to be the first woman the state has killed in 98 years—and the 12th nationally since the high court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. She'll be the first of at least 16 executions scheduled across the country in the next six months, and the latest in a long, sad list of mentally handicapped people to receive a punishment they don't deserve. I'm not advocating for her release or making excuses for her crime. She isn't, either. But I am calling for clemency. The death penalty is too blunt and final for a world about which we can never be certain. More than 130 death-row inmates have been released for wrongful convictions in recent years. Even when someone pleads guilty, as Teresa did, there's almost always more to the story.

A history of execution methods in the United States Greg Smith / Corbis

Teresa arrived at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women the same day she was sentenced in 2003. She wore blue scrubs; chains around her ankles, waist, and hands; and a bewildered expression. It's common for inmates to project you-can't-hurt-me indignation. But Teresa seemed meek, almost pliant. When I hugged her—the only hug we ever shared—she was so grateful. She didn't look like a remorseless killer, a "mastermind" who plotted two murders, as the judge put it (her original lawyers did little to dispute this image). In one of our sessions, she collapsed into great soul-shattering, body-heaving sobs and cried into my wrist, the only part of me I could get through the slot in the door.

Teresa stood out to me in other ways, too. Beneath a gloss of social pleasantries, she seemed slow and overly eager to please—an easy mark, in other words, for a con. A Duke University psychiatrist who testified at a 2005 postconviction hearing said she has an IQ of 72, placing her on the cusp of mental retardation as the Supreme Court defines it. Also disclosed since Teresa's original trial: a 2003 letter from one of the two men who carried out the killings admitting that it was he, not she, who masterminded the murders. Still, the state Supreme Court, a U.S. District Court, and, most recently, a U.S. Court of Appeals, have upheld the ruling that Teresa deserves to die. The actual killers got life in prison.

Last year, as Teresa's prospects receded, I left the prison ministry. On the inside, I was forbidden from speaking out. Now I can help her cause. My 5-year-old daughter recently asked me what an execution was, and I told her it's when someone is killed as punishment for killing someone else. "But she didn't actually kill anyone," my daughter said. No, but she participated, I explained, and in the state's eyes, that's enough. "Don't they know that doing bad to someone, even if they did bad to you, is wrong?" she responded. It's a good question.

Litchfield was chaplain at Fluvanna from 1998 to 2009.