Unfit for Execution

By Litchfield, Lynn | Newsweek, September 6, 2010 | Go to article overview

Unfit for Execution


Litchfield, Lynn, Newsweek


Byline: Lynn Litchfield

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.

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. …

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