Before leaving for our family week at the beach, I sent a goodbye card to a friend. She’s about to die. As any of us who have lost loved ones to death know, it is not easy to say goodbye. This case was especially difficult, for my friend isn’t ill. As far as I know she is in reasonably good health and turned 41 this past April. But she is set to die on September 23rd.
On that night Teresa Lewis will be strapped to a gurney and lethally injected at the death chamber inside the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt. I know she is guilty of participating in the murders of both her husband, Julian, and her stepson, C.J., who was home on military leave prior to his Army reserve unit being sent to Iraq. She pled guilty in front of Judge Strauss. But what I don’t understand is how the two triggermen received life-without-parole sentences while the judge condemned Teresa to death. He referred to her “as the head of the serpent.”
But Teresa Lewis did not fire the shotguns that night. By their own accounts Matthew Shallenberger and Rodney Fuller did. Fuller is presently incarcerated at Sussex 1 State Prison. He will die in prison. Shallenberger is already dead. He committed suicide in 2006 while serving his life sentence.
According to news accounts Teresa has an IQ of 70 or 72 while Matthew Shallenberger’s was listed as 113. Yet I keep hearing that she was sentenced to death because she “masterminded” the affair. I question that scenario. Having corresponded with Teresa for the past seven years, I don’t believe she could be the “mastermind” in this affair. This strikes me like the case of Brandon Hedrick, an individual who suffered from a low IQ who was also sentenced to death for murder while the mastermind with a higher IQ got life. Could it be that the criminal with the higher IQ fingers the less intelligent one for the ultimate punishment and thus works a deal to get the lesser sentence?
I am praying that Governor McDonnell will review the mitigating evidence that the courts because of procedural limitations will not consider: the letter that Matthew Shallenberger sent to a female friend in August 2003 in which he wanted “to get her (Teresa) to ‘fall in love’ with me so she would give me the insurance money;” and the affidavit of private investigator Alfred Brown, who interviewed Shallenberger in 2004, in which Mr. Brown says that Shallenberger admitted he orchestrated the events; and the statement of Rodney Fuller, who killed the stepson, that says Shallenberger was the mastermind while Lewis was the dupe.
There is no doubt that Teresa Lewis is guilty of participating in murder but I believe there is a grave question as to her capability to be the mastermind of the plot and thus eligible for execution under Virginia’s “murder for hire” statute. She may be guilty but is she culpable? Governor McDonnell must weigh the evidence and hopefully come down on the side of mercy and commute Lewis’ sentence to life-in-prison-without-parole. It makes no sense for the killers to get life while the dupe gets executed.
--Jack Payden-Travers serves on the Board of Directors of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and the Advisory Board of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. A recent graduate of the Conflict Transformation program of Eastern Mennonite University, he resides in Lynchburg, VA.