Skip to main content

Virginia puts woman to death by lethal injection

From Dugald McConnell and Brian Todd, CNN
Click to play
Teresa Lewis put to death
  • Teresa Lewis, 41, died Thursday night by lethal injection
  • Death penalty opponents had asked Virginia's governor for clemency
  • Lewis met earlier with family members, spiritual adviser
  • She was sentenced in the slayings of her husband, stepson

Jarratt, Virginia (CNN) -- Teresa Lewis, called the mastermind in the murder-for-hire deaths of her husband and stepson, was executed Thursday night, Virginia Department of Corrections officials said.

Lewis, who was given a lethal injection, was pronounced dead at 9:13 p.m. ET at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt.

Death penalty opponents argued that Lewis, a 41-year-old grandmother, should not have died for a 2002 conspiracy that spared two triggermen a capital sentence. Instead they got life without parole.

Lewis was the first woman executed in Virginia in nearly a century.

The victims' family members witnessed the execution, state Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor said.

News media witnesses said Lewis appeared frightened when she entered the death chamber and approached the gurney.

Asked if she had last words, Lewis said, "I just want Kathy to know I love her. And I am very sorry."

Video: Woman executed in Virginia

The inmate was referring to her stepdaughter, witness Kathy Clifton, daughter of murder victim Julian Lewis and sister of victim C.J. Lewis.

"She has no recriminations, she has no ill will for anybody," Lewis attorney Jim Rocap said. "I think frankly that she had accepted what was going to happen tonight a long time ago, and she was very peaceful with that."

The death row inmate pleaded guilty in the 2002 slayings of her husband and stepson in their rural home near Danville, Virginia, about 145 miles from Richmond.

Lewis, whom the state argued is evil, was the first woman executed in the United States in five years.

She requested a last meal of two fried chicken breasts, sweet peas with butter, German cake (first choice), apple pie (second choice) and a Dr Pepper soft drink, officials said.

Rocap also released a statement late Thursday.

"Tonight, the machinery of death in Virginia extinguished the beautiful, childlike and loving human spirit of Teresa Lewis ..." Rocap said. "Teresa asked that I send her thanks and love to all of those who have supported her in this fight for her life. In her words, 'It's just awesome.' It is our hope that Teresa's death will cause a re-examination of the badly broken system of justice that could allow something as wrong and unjust as this to happen."

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a stay of execution appeal. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell also rejected a clemency request.

"Having carefully reviewed the petition for clemency, the judicial opinions in this case, and other relevant materials, I find no compelling reason to set aside the sentence that was imposed by the Circuit Court and affirmed by all reviewing courts," McDonnell wrote. "Accordingly, I decline to intervene and have notified the appropriate counsel and family of my decision."

Lewis and her lawyers argued to the governor that she had an IQ that was borderline mentally retarded and that she was manipulated into committing the crimes by a dominant male co-defendant. She pleaded guilty to her participation in the murders but later regretted her actions, they said.

Two anti-death penalty groups pleaded with McDonnell to show clemency.

"Teresa's death sentence, imposed despite clear evidence of her diminished mental capacities, disabilities and addictions, undermines any confidence that she was properly adjudicated to be 'worthy' of death," argued Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "The final failure of the death penalty system in Virginia rests squarely on the desk of Governor McDonnell. He should do the right thing and allow Teresa the same punishment, which was given to her co-defenders -- life imprisonment."

"I just want the governor to know that I am so sorry, deeply from my heart," Lewis recently said. "And if I could take it back, I would, in a minute. ... I just wish I could take it back. And I'm sorry for all the people that I've hurt in the process."

Lewis admitted to police that she concocted the plot to kill her husband, Julian, and his son C.J., an Army reservist set to be deployed to Iraq. At the time, she was having an affair with Matthew Shallenberger and paid him and then-19-year-old Rodney Fuller to commit murder for the victims' insurance money. Court records show that Lewis gave the two killers cash to buy weapons and left the door of the home open for easy entry.

Lewis was in bed with her husband when he was hit with a shotgun blast by Shallenberger. Julian Lewis survived long enough to tell police, "My wife knows who did this to me." Fuller killed C.J. Lewis in his bedroom down the hall.

Despite her guilty plea, a state judge later sentenced Lewis to death while sparing the lives of Shallenberger and Fuller. At sentencing, the judge called her "the head of this serpent."

"I can frankly say that Teresa Lewis is as evil a person as I've ever met," David Grimes, commonwealth's attorney for Pittsylvania County, who was at the scene shortly after the crimes occurred. "I would wager with some assurance that you wouldn't find anyone who knew her before this event occurred who thought she was mentally retarded or had a limited mentality -- that it would ever cross their minds."

Her supporters said Lewis was deeply remorseful and had been a model prisoner, helping fellow female inmates cope with their circumstances.

"I do feel I could be a lot of help to some of the women, which I have already. From my understanding, I've already helped a lot to change their lives or made them look at their lives in a different way," Lewis said.

Amnesty International and best-selling author John Grisham were among those supporting leniency.

Grimes said Lewis had a "fairly low" IQ but noted that courts have concluded she was not mentally retarded. The state also argued that Lewis waited 45 minutes after the shootings before calling police and that she had involved her then-16-year-old daughter in the plot.

Rocap argued that such evidence suggested "Teresa could not have been the mastermind."

"Shallenberger has stated, and the experts that have examined her agree, that she was being used by Shallenberger, not the other way around," he said.

Lewis' attorneys said that Shallenberger admitted he used Lewis to get at the $250,000 she would receive in the event her stepson died. A letter from Shallenberger to another woman, they say, said that the only reason he slept with Lewis was "so she would give me the insurance money."

"She was exactly what I was looking for," he wrote. "Some ugly bitch who married her husband for the money and I knew I could get to fall head over heels for me."

Furthermore, they said, Shallenberger said he "manipulated the whole thing" and "knew he was going 'take' Lewis from the moment he met her," according to an affidavit from one of their investigators.

But Shallenberger, who committed suicide in 2006, refused to sign the affidavit and actually tore up and ate part of it.

Still, Grimes said, his investigation showed that Lewis took an active role in the plot, that she connived and manipulated everyone from her late husband to her lover to her children. From early on, he said, Lewis schemed several different ways to get the inheritance money. She helped plan an earlier plot to kill her husband that failed.