Has Capital Punishment Come to the End of its Life?

Just over a week ago today, at exactly 9.13pm, Teresa Lewis was pronounced dead after being administered three lethal injections at Greensville prison. As the first woman to be executed in Virginia in almost 100 years, Lewis’ death has reignited the debate concerning the use of capital punishment in the US. A century earlier, Virginia Christian was electrocuted at the age of 17 for murdering her employer, Ida Belote, despite suffering from mental disabilities. After being struck by Belote, Christian attacked her employer with a broom before suffocating her with a towel in an attempt to silence her screaming.

Whilst Christian maintained that she had not killed with intent, Lewis admitted to her role in the murder of her husband and stepson who were shot by Matthew Shallenberger and Rodney Fuller in 2002. In addition to buying weapons and leaving her trailer unlocked, Lewis is believed to have bribed her conspirators through offering sex with herself and her 16-year-old daughter and a percentage of her husband’s life insurance. Lewis’ case does, however, share one striking similarity with that of Christian’s since, with an IQ of only 72, she too was close to the limit set for mental retardation. According to friends of Lewis, she was unable to live alone and struggled to perform simple daily tasks, such as purchasing food. Addicted to painkillers, Lewis was diagnosed with dependent personality disorder which supposedly led to a dependency on men and an early marriage at the age of 16.

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled the execution of defendants suffering from “mental retardation” as unconstitutional. Yet, despite possessing the mental age of a 12 or 13 year old, Lewis’ mental limitations do not appear, at least not sufficiently, to have been taken into account. Whilst two of the three female justices called for Lewis’ execution to be delayed, the Supreme Court refused to hear her appeal. Protesters deemed Lewis’ sentence to be unjust, with more than 7,300 appeals being made to Robert McDonnell, the Governor of Virginia, to annul her death penalty. The court’s ruling also provoked criticism from numerous leading political figures. João Vale de Almeida, the EU Ambassador to the US, declared that “[t]he execution of people with mental disorders of all types is contrary to minimum standards of human rights.” Iran’s President Ahmadinejad also spoke out stating that Lewis “is to be executed… while her physician believes that she was suffering from mental disorder at the time of her husband’s murder.” For President Ahmadinejad, Lewis’ case highlights what he refers to as the West’s “double standards” following the international condemnation of Iran’s treatment of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani who may be hung or stoned to death for committing adultery and murdering her husband. It must be acknowledged that significant differences exist between the two cases. According to Amnesty International, Ashtiani was coerced into admitting adultery and she has allegedly been denied meetings with her lawyers repeatedly. In contrast, Lewis admitted to her complicity and was allowed to communicate with her legal team.

America’s support for the death penalty, however, does appear to be at odds with its libertarian ideals as outlined in the Declaration of Independence. Proponents of capital punishment often argue that it acts as a deterrent and a form of prevention and is cheaper than life imprisonment. Another argument for the death penalty centres upon retribution and the notion that those who commit atrocious crimes deserve to be executed. However, according to Professors Michael L. Radelet and Marian J. Borg, as time passes, the severity of a punishment no longer affects its deterrent powers. Studies have also revealed that capital punishment is “not more effective than imprisonment in deterring murder” and that it is, in fact, more expensive than imprisonment without parole. Furthermore, it may be argued that capital punishment does not provide but, in fact, prevents solace from being attained due to the numerous retrials which tend to occur during capital trials. Above all, the death penalty leaves no room for miscarriages of justice. Since 1970, 80 people on death row have not been executed after being found to be innocent whilst, in 1999, Illinois suspended executions following the discovery that 12 innocent people had been killed during the previous two decades.

Although Lewis admitted to her involvement in the murders, uncertainty overshadows her case. Shallenberger and Fuller not only received life imprisonment instead of capital punishment but, since being sentenced, have admitted to manipulating Lewis. According to Slate, Shallenberger informed a friend that Lewis was “just what I was looking for: some ugly bitch who married her husband for the money and I knew I could get to fall head over heals [sic] for me.” This evidence was not, however, voiced during Lewis’ trial.

In Texas, the case of Linda Carty is also shrouded in doubt. Accused of orchestrating the murder of Joana Rodriguez who was kidnapped by three members of a drug cartel, Carty continues to insist that she is innocent. Carty believes that she was framed after the drugs gang discovered that she was an agent for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The Supreme Court, however, rejected an appeal for her case to be reviewed at the beginning of 2010. According to Carty’s legal representatives, her trial was unfair since evidence was gathered from drug dealers and gunmen. Jerry Guerinot, her defence lawyer, is alleged not to have used key witnesses – including an officer within the DEA who was prepared to testify that she would not have committed such a crime – and to have rejected support offered by the British government despite the fact that Carty possesses British citizenship. According to The Observer, of the 39 men and women Guerinot has represented, 20 have been sentenced to death.

Capital punishment has now been banned in 67 countries whilst the abolition of the death penalty is a prerequisite for membership within the Council of Europe. In 1972, the US Supreme Court stated that the majority of death penalty statutes failed to comply with the constitution and those on death row were consequently re-sentenced to life-imprisonment. Yet, in 1976, the decision was overturned and new statutes were introduced. In 1997, the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association suggested that a moratorium on capital punishment should be imposed in a response to the “refusal of states and the courts to take action to prevent the execution of juveniles and the mentally retarded.” A year later, the Capital Jury Project analysed a study of jurors sitting on capital punishment cases in 15 states. 69% stated that “lingering doubt” would make them less willing to vote for the death penalty, while 55% said that their support for execution would decrease if they were aware that a defendant was suffering from mental difficulties when the crime was committed. Yet, whilst some states, including New Jersey and New Mexico, have banned the death penalty, many continue to enforce it. The ambiguities surrounding the cases of both Lewis and Carty, however, suggest that now may be an ideal time for the US to re-examine its legal system and look back to the principles of integrity and justice on which the country was founded.

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