Iran seizes on US decision to execute woman

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The Independent US

Despite appeals for clemency at home and abroad - and accusations of hypocrisy from none other than Iran - the state of Virginia seems set to go ahead tomorrow with the first execution of a woman in the US since 2005, and only the 12th since capital punishment resumed here in 1976.

Barring a last-minute intervention by the Supreme Court, 41-year-old Teresa Lewis will be put to death by lethal injection at 9pm, for hiring two men to kill her husband and stepson in October 2002, in a plot to collect $250,000 of life insurance. Yesterday, Robert McDonnell, the Virginia Governor, again refused to commute her sentence, saying he could find "no compelling reason" for clemency.

And indeed, Lewis herself admits to committing the crimes, and seems resigned to her fate. "It hurts deeply in my heart to know that I took two people's lives that I loved, and hurt so many others that I love and care about," she told the Richmond Times-Dispatch yesterday. Though she did not herself commit the murders, the judge who sentenced her in 2003 described her as "the head of this snake".

Lewis, it was established, was having an affair and devised a scheme with her lover, Matthew Shallenberger, whereby she would leave the door of her trailer home open so that Shallenberger and an accomplice could slip in and kill her husband and stepson as they slept. Initially she claimed that intruders were responsible, but quickly confessed to what had really happened.

But the case, it gradually emerged, was not that simple. Lewis was a gullible woman, of very low intelligence. Shallenberger - a petty criminal with ambitions of being a professional hit-man - boasted to friends that he was the real mastermind of the murder plot.

In 2004 Rodney Fuller, the accomplice, signed an affidavit declaring that "Shallenberger was definitely the one in charge of things, not Ms Lewis".

In the event, however, Shallenberger and Rodney pleaded guilty in return for life imprisonment, while Lewis, borderline mentally retarded and with no previous record of violence, was sentenced to death. For supporters of Lewis and opponents of the death penalty, the different treatment underlines the random and unfair way in which capital punishment is applied in the US.

"When the trigger-men get life and a woman who seems incapable of plotting the crime gets death, something is clearly askew," Amnesty International USA said, arguing that "given the capriciousness of the death penalty overall.... it is clear the system can never be truly just."

Another critic is the Virginia-based crime novelist and former trial lawyer John Grisham, who wrote in the Washington Post that Lewis's punishment had less to do with fairness than "the assignment of judge and prosecutor, the location of the crime, the quality of the defence counsel, the speed with which a co-defendant struck a deal, the quality of each side's experts and other factors". Such inconsistencies, he insisted, "mock the idea" that the US system was based on equality before the law.

The affair has also given Iran an opportunity to berate the US for hypocrisy in preparing to put Lewis to death, while Washington condemned Tehran for sentencing Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani to death by stoning.

It now appears Ms Ashtiani will no longer be stoned. But the cases do have similarities. Like Lewis, Ms Ashtiani, 43, is accused of plotting to kill her former husband, as well as adultery.

This week, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the Iranian president who is in New York for United Nations meetings, told state TV that "a woman is being executed in the US for murder, but no one is protesting against it".

Virginia has not executed a woman since Virginia Christian, a black servant girl convicted of killing her white mistress, went to the electric chair in August 1912, a day after she turned 17.

Capital punishment

3,261 People on death row in US at start of 2010.

61 Women on death row in the US at the start of 2010 – less than 2 per cent of death row population.

107 Executions carried out by the state of Virginia in the past 34 years. Only Texas has executed more with 463.

11 Women executed in the US since the restoration of the death penalty in 1976.

35 Number of states with the death penalty. Fifteen states do not have the ultimate sanction.

18 Countries known to have carried out death sentences in 2009.

198 Year when lethal injection was introduced in US. More than 1,000 prisoners have been executed by this method.

Source: Death Penalty Information centre, Amnesty International

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