Teresa Lewis: victim of vengeance
I've reported on executions – but the more I see, the less it makes sense. Now this unreason has claimed number 1,227
Death penalty protesters outside Greensville Correctional Centre in Jarratt, Virginia, where Teresa Lewis was executed and pronounced dead at 9:13pm on 23 September 2010. Photograph: AP Photo/Steve Helber
On Thursday night, in a windowless chamber in a prison in Virginia, we reached number 1,227. That's the number of people who have been killed by lethal injection, hanging, firing squad, electric chair or cyanide gas since the US supreme court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.
Last night's victim was 41-year-old Teresa Lewis, the first woman prisoner to be executed in the state of Virginia in close to 100 years. Her gender, mental capacity and role in the crime, plus the fact that her co-defendants were spared the death penalty, have brought national and international scrutiny to her case and the American system of justice. Why, people around the world wonder, does the United States remain the only industrialised western nation that kills killers and their accomplices?
As someone who has reported on and written about executions in the US, I've grappled with finding an answer to that question.
I've sadly reached the realisation that, in part, it undeniably reflects that some of our ugliest history lives on. Since the US supreme court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the majority of the 1,227 executions have occurred in the south – the former lynching states – and a disproportionate number of them have been members of ethnic minorities. Moreover, roughly 80% of the people on death row had white victims, not black or Latino. The rich do not receive the death penalty in the United States.
I know support for the death penalty can't rest on its accuracy, effectiveness or efficiency. Since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, 124 men have been exonerated after spending time on death row. That is, they were found to be innocent after living for years, and sometimes decades, with a death sentence. A verdict of death will cost taxpayers anywhere from 10 to 20 times more than keeping the convicted incarcerated for life. To top it off, states that do not have the death penalty, such as New York, consistently have lower murder rates than those that do conduct executions, such as Virginia. Meaning, capital punishment is not a deterrent.
The only cogent argument for having the death penalty is that some prosecutors claim it is an effective stick. Hold the threat of execution over the accused's head, and they will cop a plea, saving courts time and money, they say. How often this occurs, how much time and money it saves, and whether justice is actually served by not having trials, are questions prosecutors often fail to answer adequately. And when you consider the mistakes made when the accused don't cop a plea – those mistakes caught in time and those proven too late – it seems a very flimsy reason to give governments such an awesome and irrevocable responsibility.
If it is inequitably implemented, is riddled with error, ineffective as a deterrent and does little to improve the justice system, why do we still execute people? I've come to conclude that the only two unassailable reasons why people in the United States support the death penalty are fear and vengeance. We fear crime and criminals. We consider the perpetrators "evil" and "irredeemable". We respond with Old Testament fervour, by trying to rid our world of these threats.
With fear and vengeance motivating the killing, we convince ourselves we are doing something good for victims, by giving them an opportunity for so-called closure, though many realise the execution fails in that regard, too.
Too many politicians fear that opposing the death penalty is political suicide. The death penalty is a hot button issue, and if they touch it, the next time there is a murder, every rightwing commentator and political opponent will be blasting them for being "soft on crime" – a terminal label in US politics.
Sadly, while they report on the death penalty's failures, the American media are afraid to lose ratings in the 24-hour news cycle, so they sell their soul to keep their audience glued for the next frightening bit of news.
The good news is that Americans' attitudes about the death penalty are slowly changing. In the past two years, two states – New Jersey and New Mexico – have repealed the death penalty, and more are considering it. The cash-strapped states simply can't afford capital punishment. Additionally, there is increasing awareness that government is not infallible.
As in the Virginia case, where the execution has been carried out. A Virginia judge sentenced Teresa Lewis to die by lethal injection, even though she never pulled the trigger and had an IQ hovering near 70 (the legal limit below which a death sentence would be inapplicable). Her two accomplices committed the actual murder, yet those two men did not receive the death penalty. Go figure.