Fordham Law


As Teresa Lewis faces execution, death penalty expert says evidence doesn't support lethal sentence

Deborah Denno in The Daily News, September 23, 2010

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As a Virginia woman counts down her final hours, hundreds of miles away another is crying foul.

"I think the courts haven't taken into account all the factors," Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School, told the Daily News.

One of the nation's leading death penalty experts, Denno argues the evidence clearly shows Teresa Lewis, convicted in 2003, could not have been the devilish mastermind of an elaborate double murder.

"The crime's horrible, but there are a lot of these horrible crimes, and you don't have the death penalty," she said.

Lewis' role in the brutal slayings cannot be denied, Denno said, but executing her is "disproportionate" compared to her role in the murders.

"Her two male co-conspirators, who actually carried out the murders, got life sentences," she said.

The 42-year-old pled guilty nearly seven years ago to plotting to kill her husband and stepson for the life insurance money. She was later sentenced to death, and has been fighting her way through the courts to reverse that decision ever since.

Her last hope for reprieve came on Monday, when the Supreme Court denied Lewis a stay of execution.

But as Denno explains, reversing a death penalty sentence is no easy task.

"You can have the best lawyer, and Ms. Lewis has a wonderful law firm behind her, but it's still very difficult," she said.

Appellate courts more often than not adhere to the original findings in the case, often despite new evidence, Denno said. In the case of Teresa Lewis, that evidence included an exam that showed she was borderline mentally challenged, and that one of the men convicted in the murders wrote in a letter that he had in fact manipulated her to go along with the crime.

"Death penalty cases are treated differently," the law professor said. "Reversals are very hard."

Denno also suggests the mere fact that she is a women lends credence to the suggestion she could not have been the mastermind of the murders.

Generally, in homicide cases that involve a man and a woman, it is the man who plots the crime while the woman follows along, she said.

"If you're looking at the odds, that's the typical scenario," Denno said. "People generally follow gender roles, and homicides are not an exception."

Even the suggestion that Lewis was not the same person she was prior to the killings did not help her case. A model prisoner, Lewis found religion in jail and is known to sing gospels in her cell, but that did not help to sway the courts or Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.

"Most prisoners change," Denno said. "That's not unusual... [but courts] really look at what you did at the time, and the punishment you got then."

With her options exhausted, there is little at this stage that can be done to prevent Lewis from facing lethal injection. However, Denno believes her case is not exactly over.

"I think this is a case that upsets a lot of people," she said. It will likely serve as "one chip against the death penalty."

The uproar, which has drawn the attention of author John Grisham and even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will undoubtedly spark debate regarding the future use of the severe sentencing.

"In Teresa Lewis' case, I think there'll be further discussion," Denno said. "Her name is not going to be forgotten."