Teresa Lewis faces execution on Sept. 23. She is the first woman scheduled for execution in Virginia in almost 100 years.
I knew when I met Teresa I was taking a risk. The more I invested, the more painful the journey would become for me, especially if she was executed. I had faith. I had a job to do.
Having resigned the chaplaincy position at Virginia’s Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women (FCCW) in May 2009, I am now free to tell our story.
For almost 12 years, I was the sole chaplain at Virginia’s maximum security prison for females. For six of those years, I was responsible for the spiritual care of the lone woman on Death Row. I met her in June 2003, the day she was sentenced.
Lewis had pled guilty to “murder for hire” in the deaths of her husband and adult stepson. I waited for her arrival in the hallway of our receiving unit. She came in fully shackled – wrists, waist and ankles.
At some point in the processing, unshackled very briefly, I asked if I could give her a hug. She said, “Yes, please.” I didn’t know then it would be the only hug we ever shared.
I didn’t know Teresa had an IQ of 70 – in the lowest 3 percent of our population. I didn’t know she was not the triggerman in the awful crime. I didn’t know her co-defendants, who actually pulled the triggers of the shotguns that killed the two victims, both received life sentences rather than the death penalty. I couldn’t possibly know all the details. I only knew that the woman who stood before me had a story of a life gone so wrong. Her own life was now valued only as a sacrifice to vengeance.
Over the next six years of pastoral visits through the food tray slot of her cell, I learned a great deal about Teresa. I saw her struggle with guilt and remorse for the deaths she had helped cause. But I also learned how enduring the human spirit can be.
For six straight years, my hands were the only ones to hold hers in prayer or in comfort. When her body was wracked with gut-wrenching, soul-breaking sobs from the burden she carries, I could only reach my wrist into the slot to try and comfort her in the most limited hug of my life.
Because there was no trial, Teresa’s sentence was issued by a judge. His decision was based on the assumption that she is a remorseless, cold human being who “masterminded” a crime in exchange for sex and money.
My experience with Teresa as a simple, concrete thinker convinces me this is not possible. My assessment aside, one of her co-defendants wrote to a friend admitting that he was using this “scary, ugly white woman” to get money for a drug distribution business.
Teresa, slow and very eager to please, was an easy target. One of the triggermen even said he had always wanted to be an assassin. Yet, both men received life sentences. The “black widow myth” purports that women manipulate men with sex and then take them down. This myth may very well cost Teresa her life.
The Teresa I know is so eager to please she refuses to advocate for herself for fear of upsetting the staff. “My” Teresa, in spite of her constant isolation, found a remarkable ministry to the women assigned to segregation for disciplinary reasons.
Teresa’s quite extraordinary voice sings of love and faith. When she sings, the often cacophonous noise in the wing settles down. Through plumbing or air vents, lying face down on the ground, Teresa tries to communicate with them to help. Women who returned to general population from segregation often shared prayers of thanksgiving in our large prison church for Teresa’s witness.
Does being a good person now negate or excuse her participation in her crime? No. Nothing can undo the agony and heartache caused, in part, by her actions. However, I would urge even those who support the death penalty to consider if it is properly applied here, where the two men who pulled the trigger were spared.
Further, Teresa’s intellectual functioning is so low that it falls into a range the U.S. Supreme Court found should prohibit her execution. The ruling, however, also says she must have “significant deficits in adaptive behavior.”
Teresa has adapted by learning to read behavioral and facial clues to try to please, and to look and act more “normal” and fit in. It is a cruel irony that her small capacity to awkwardly follow the lead of others made her especially vulnerable to those carrying out the murders, but precludes protection from the most extreme punishment for her involvement.
I know Teresa’s life to have value to me, to the staff and to the other women in prison. By sharing her story, she inspires faith and courage. Teresa’s willingness to open her heart to some of Virginia’s most challenging women has made the prison a better place. I am a better chaplain, and a more loving human being, because of my time with her.
I share our story hoping people will respond with mercy to her. SaveTeresaLewis.org has an online petition to ask for commutation of her sentence to life in prison.
The website has more details, letters by her co-defendants and even videos of a few of us who know her.
If you feel led, please write Gov. Robert McDonnell. Ask him to commute her sentence to life without parole.
I am confident that Teresa’s ministry to other inmates would flourish if given the chance. Please consider her situation – and mine.
Is it within your heart to extend radical grace, entirely unmerited favor, to one of the least of these?
Lynn Litchfield was chaplain at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women from 1997 to 2009. She is an ordained Baptist minister.