The prosecutor in this case tried to get some reality into the media. The Washington Post didn’t have a place for it. Surprise.
I have permisson to distribute as I see fit.
To the Editor:
I write to respond to your published OpEd piece “John Grisham: Teresa Lewis didn’t pull the trigger. Why is she on death row?” published in your
Sunday, September 12, 2010 edition.
I have taken his writing verbatim without any deletion and noted my responses so your readers may consider both at once.
GRISHAM: The Commonwealth of Virginia already has a serious relationship with its death penalty. In the past three decades, only Texas has executed more inmates. But on Sept. 23, the Old Dominion will enter new territory when it executes a female inmate for the first time in nearly a century.
Her name is Teresa Lewis, she is the only woman on death row at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, and her appeals have all but expired. If she is executed, she will become another glaring example of the unfairness of our death penalty system.
Lewis is not innocent. She confessed to the police, pled guilty to the judge and for almost eight years has expressed profound remorse for her role in two murders.
As with most violent crimes, a recitation of the facts of this case would fill pages; still, a brief summary drawn from news reports, letters and affidavits is useful.
GRIMES: It might be helpful when writing a non-fiction opinion piece to seek information from sources other than the “Save Teresa Lewis” web site and her current legal team. Among the undisputed facts: approximately three months before the murders, C. J. Lewis, an Army Reservist, was called to active duty. Shortly thereafter, Teresa Lewis somehow convinced him to name his father “primary beneficiary” and Teresa “secondary beneficiary” on his $250,000 life insurance policy (automatically issued for active duty personnel). She well knew Julian had received the proceeds from a similar policy after his other son, Jason, died in a motor vehicle crash. That money was in Julian’s name alone, but she had convinced him to spend much of it on her.
GRISHAM: In 2002, Lewis, then 33, lived with her second husband in a mobile home in a rural area near Danville. She was having an affair with a man named Matthew Shallenberger, who, though nothing more than a common thug, had ambitions. He was looking for seed money to establish a distribution ring for illicit drugs, but his real dream was to become an accomplished hitman, Mafia-style. He reasoned that if he could build his résumé, his reputation would spread all the way to New York, and he could somehow join the big leagues of contract killing.
GRIMES: It is interesting that these statements attributed to Shallenberger are accepted without question. He was in fact a 22 year old kitchen helper at a local restaurant. No reliable information ever surfaced to connect him with other criminal activity or to suggest his talk of drug dealing and gangs was anything other than fantasy or lies of a small man eager to impress an older woman.
GRISHAM: Shallenberger had a partner named Rodney Fuller, and it is not clear if he was also afflicted with these grand ideas. What is clear is that the three—Shallenberger, Fuller and Lewis—participated in a scheme to kill Lewis’s husband for his money. At some point, the plans broadened to include the murder of her 25-year-old stepson, a National Guard member with a life insurance policy.
On the night of Oct. 30, 2002, Lewis left a door unlocked, got into bed with her husband and waited. Shallenberger and Fuller entered through the unlocked door, as planned. Shallenberger blasted the husband with a shotgun while, at the other end of the trailer, Fuller shot the stepson. Needless to say, the crime scenes were gruesome.
Lewis initially claimed that the killings were the work of an intruder, but the authorities suspected otherwise. After being confronted, she broke down, confessed and fingered Shallenberger and Fuller. All three were arrested and charged with capital murder.
GRIMES: She lied to police and everyone who would listen for several days after the murders while she attempted to obtain by forged draft the first $50,000 of her murdered husband’s money. She confessed after failing a polygraph and told an investigator she really did not intend to share the money with the two men she had recruited.
GRISHAM: Fuller’s lawyers were quick off the mark. They realized the futility of a defense and advised their client to cut a deal—to plead guilty and promise to testify against his two co-conspirators in exchange for life without parole.
GRIMES: In truth, Fuller was a 19-year-old with no significant criminal background who worked with, and shared a rented trailer with, Matthew Shallenberger. I determined Fuller’s truthful testimony would be essential to convicting Shallenberger and proving the details of Teresa Lewis’ participation. Shallenberger had admitted nothing and Fuller had fully confessed, immediately and emotionally. I believe Fuller held a firearm for the first time in his life one week before the murders. On that occasion, Teresa Lewis personally withdrew $1,200 from her bank account and delivered it to Shallenberger so he could purchase guns. Shallenberger, Fuller and a straw purchaser went to a gun store and bought two new pump shotguns. Shallenberger took Fuller to a place in the country and showed him the basics of loading, aiming and shooting the weapon.
The same day, Teresa Lewis instructed both on the route her husband always drove home. Together they planned that Shallenberger and Fuller would drive behind Julian, pass his car, shoot out a tire, then cut his throat and make it look like a robbery. Teresa Lewis planned an alibi for herself. She had already brought into the conspiracy her daughter, Christi (who had just celebrated her 16th birthday and lived in North Carolina with her father). Teresa had arranged for Christi to meet and have sexual relations in a car with Fuller to keep him interested in the scheme (while Teresa and Shallenberger engaged in similar behavior parked beside them in another car). Teresa placed a land-line long distance call to Christi to be sure she would have proof she was at home that evening.
Julian, a cautious and patient driver, unknowingly foiled that attempt: when he caught up with a slower vehicle, he decided not to pass. Teresa’s hirelings were unable to kill him on the road. She later admitted when Julian walked into their home, she was startled but had the presence of mind to ask him to go back out to buy her headache medicine, hoping her partners might get another chance. Later in the week when she learned her step-son, C. J. would come home on a three day pass, Teresa Lewis set the new plan in motion: Shallenberger and Fuller could murder the men together rather than separately.
GRISHAM: Lewis’s lawyers likewise wanted no part of a jury trial. The evidence of their client’s guilt was overwhelming, and they felt strongly that, after hearing all the facts and seeing the color photos from the crime scene, any jury would be in a hanging mood. They advised Lewis to plead guilty and to take her chances with the trial judge who would determine her sentence. They believed this judge would give her life in prison because he had just sentenced Fuller to the same. Furthermore, Lewis had no criminal record and no history of violence. She had cooperated with the authorities. And no woman had received the death penalty in Virginia since 1912.
GRIMES: In truth, Teresa Lewis had a felony criminal record for forging a prescription. In truth, her cooperation came only after eight interviews by some skilled and persistent investigators and a failed polygraph examination. She decided to plead guilty. She apparently calculated the judge might spare her life and a jury almost certainly would not.
GRISHAM: But Lewis was sentenced to die.
GRIMES: More details apparently not considered by Mr. Grisham: Teresa Lewis admitted she went to great lengths to allay any suspicion or anxiety on the night of the murders. She coaxed her husband to drink; she spoke at length with her step-son. She had her daughter, Christi, phone Julian to keep him off guard. She told investigators she convinced her husband to kneel by their bed and pray for improvement in their marriage as they retired for the night. She either got up to let her partners in or left the back door open for them. She withdrew from the bed she shared with Julian in time for Shallenberger to fire his shotgun five times from the foot of the bed directly at Julian. Still, Shallenberger was so inept he missed with one shot and scattered the remaining five away from Julian’s core, horribly maiming him, but leaving him far from death. Fuller walked in on C. J., who was listening to music with headphones. He apparently only had time to stand before Fuller shot him three times at close range in the middle of his body. He died very quickly. Apparently knowing little about the killing power of various shotgun loads, the hired killers used small birdshot chosen by Shallenberger to execute their victims.
Teresa Lewis returned to the marital bedroom where Julian lay conscious in agony to retrieve his pants and wallet. In the kitchen, she gave the $300 from the wallet to Fuller and Shallenberger. Fuller expressed uncertainty that C. J. was dead and was sent to shoot him again.
Julian remained alive and awake despite horrific wounds to his limbs and lower body. Teresa Lewis admitted she waited at least 35 minutes after the last gunshot, long after her partners had left, to call 911. In fact, she first called a girlfriend and her former mother-in-law. She called 911 from the bathroom most distant from the bedroom where Julian lay, calculating I believe to keep Julian’s screaming from being heard by the dispatcher. She said an intruder had killed both Julian and C. J., but when deputies arrived 23 minutes after her call, Julian was alive, conscious and in agony. He was able to state his name and “my wife knows who done this to me” before dying at the scene.
GRISHAM: Up last was Shallenberger, who in the middle of his trial changed his plea to guilty. The trial judge (the same who had sentenced Fuller and Lewis) sentenced him to life in prison. Prosecutors had already promised life to Fuller, and it wouldn’t be fair, the judge reasoned, to give one of the triggermen death when the other got life.
GRIMES: Shallenberger pleaded guilty before a jury was selected, but after he and his lawyers had seen the jury pool. I urged the Judge to sentence him to death as well, arguing my view that the hierarchy of evil placed him close behind Teresa Lewis.
GRISHAM: The judge’s rationale in giving Lewis a death sentence was that she was more culpable than the men, who shot their victims as they slept. The killings were her idea, the judge reasoned; she was the mastermind; she recruited Shallenberger and Fuller to do the dirty work; she wanted the money; and so on.
Although much of this went unchallenged at Lewis’s sentencing hearing, it has since been challenged on appeal. Lawyers for Lewis have presented evidence that:
(1) She has an IQ of just above 70—borderline retarded—and as such lacks the basic skills necessary to organize and lead a conspiracy to commit murder for hire;
GRIMES: More troublesome information not included in Mr. Grisham’s “research”: From the Virginia Supreme Court opinion denying Lewis’ petition for habeas corpus (Lewis v. Warden, 274 Va. 93, 106-107 (2007)):
“The Commonwealth presented the testimony of Leigh D. Hagan, Psy.D., a forensic and clinical psychologist, who evaluated Lewis based on a personal interview and on his review of Lewis’ records. According to Dr. Hagan, Lewis does not meet the criteria for mental retardation established in Code § 19.2-264.3:1.1.
As part of his evaluation, Dr. Hagan administered the same intelligence test that Lewis had been given during the earlier assessment of her competency to stand trial. Dr. Hagan reported that Lewis obtained a full scale I.Q. test score of 70, a performance I.Q. test score of 74, and a verbal I.Q. test score of 72. After considering Lewis’ various achievements during her life, Dr. Hagen concluded that these I.Q. test scores represented an “underestimate” of Lewis’ intellect, and that she had not put forth her best effort during the I.Q. test.
Dr. Hagan provided examples of Lewis’ ‘adaptive functioning,’ which he stated supported his conclusion that Lewis was not mentally retarded. Dr. Hagen noted that Lewis had never failed a grade level at school, and had not been terminated from any job due to an inability to understand her employment duties. Lewis also had demonstrated the conceptual ability to respond and attend to her parents’ needs, and she had successfully completed a certified nursing assistant program at a local community college.
In addition, Dr. Hagan reported that Lewis was a ‘prolific’ writer during her incarceration, frequently sending letters to various ‘pen pals’ and trial counsel. According to Dr. Hagan, Lewis also planned and appeared for cosmetic appointments while incarcerated in preparation for her court appearances. Based on these observations, Dr. Hagan opined that Lewis had the capacity to act intentionally to plan and help execute the crimes and to attempt to profit from the murders.”
GRISHAM: (2) She has dependent personality disorder and therefore complied with the demands of those upon whom she relied, especially men;
GRIMES: I suggest the evidence proved she fully manipulated and deceived Julian Lewis until the moment she had him murdered. He was a decorated veteran and skilled factory mechanic, not easily fooled by anyone.
GRISHAM: (3) Because of a long list of physical ailments she had developed an addiction to pain medications, and this adversely affected her judgment; and
GRIMES: She had failed in her efforts to prove “disability” but was convicted of forging a prescription to feed her prescription drug habit. Her judgment was sufficient to find a man who had recently lost his wife to a prolonged illness, move into his home within three months, quit her job after four months, and marry him within six months.
GRISHAM: (4) She had not a single episode of violent behavior in the past.
Her lawyers have also argued that Shallenberger, who committed suicide behind bars in 2006, masterminded the murders. They have pointed to evidence that he had an IQ of 113 and was known to be intelligent and manipulative.
They have cited the sworn affidavit of a private investigator who interviewed Shallenberger in prison in 2004. This investigator said Shallenberger described Lewis as not very bright and as someone who could be easily duped into a scheme to kill her husband and stepson for money. According to the investigator, Shallenberger said: “From the moment I met her I knew she was someone who could be easily manipulated. From the moment I met her I had a plan for how I could use her to get some money.”
GRIMES: Did Mr. Grisham also learn the defense team’s investigator claimed he had reduced Shallenberger’s statement to writing, but that Shallenberger tore it up and ate part of it rather than sign it?
GRISHAM: Lewis’s lawyers have also cited a letter Shallenberger sent to a girlfriend shortly after he was sentenced, in which he wrote, “I figured why go to New York for $20,000 a hit when I could do just one and make $350,000 off of it.” In the same letter he said of Lewis: “She was exactly what I was looking for.”
GRIMES: With all their resources, the post-conviction team found not one person, friend or family member, to substantiate any of Shallenberger’s tall tales and fantasies. Our novelist turned OpEd crusader might consider whether a killer doing life might be capable of conning an old girlfriend on the outside.
GRISHAM: In addition, they have cited a 2004 affidavit by Shallenberger’s fellow assassin, Fuller, who said this: “As between Mrs. Lewis and Shallenberger, Shallenberger was definitely the one in charge of things, not Mrs. Lewis.”
Under Virginia law, Lewis, Fuller and Shallenberger are all guilty of murder.
GRIMES: Actually, Teresa Lewis pleaded guilty to two counts of capital murder: she hired men to kill two innocent people, Julian Lewis and C. J. Lewis. She received two death sentences. Each of the men was exposed to a single death sentence as a triggerman in a robbery murder. Each man also was guilty as a principal in the second degree to the murder committed by the other.
GRISHAM: Why, then, did the triggermen get life without parole while Lewis received a sentence of death? Ostensibly, it is because she was the ringleader and thus more culpable. But what could make a killer more culpable than repeatedly shooting a sleeping victim?
GRIMES: I accept full responsibility for Rodney Fuller getting life without parole instead of death. I also vigorously and passionately advocated the death penalty for Shallenberger while recognizing his level of evil as slightly below Mrs. Lewis. Our justice system is founded on the proposition that the courts consider unique individuals and cases on their own merits. While I disagree with Shallenberger’s life sentence for capital murder, I certainly respect that decision.
GRISHAM: Lewis has appealed her case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but her chances do not look good. Her lawyers have also filed a petition for executive clemency with Gov. Bob McDonnell’s office; they are, as of this writing, awaiting a decision.
In this case, as in so many capital cases, the imposition of a death sentence had little do with fairness. Like other death sentences, it depended more upon the assignment of judge and prosecutor, the location of the crime, the quality of the defense counsel, the speed with which a co-defendant struck a deal, the quality of each side’s experts and other such factors.
In Virginia, the law is hardly consistent. There have been other cases with similar facts—a wife and her lover scheme to kill her husband for his money or for life insurance proceeds. But there is no precedent for the wife being sentenced to death.
GRIMES: Mr. Grisham may wish to search further. I know of no other case in Virginia or elsewhere with two horrific murders for hire being committed simultaneously while the instigator who hired the killers remained at the scene, waiting as one victim, her husband, continued stubbornly, and in agony, to live.
GRISHAM: Such inconsistencies mock the idea that ours is a system grounded in equality before the law.
John Grisham’s latest novel is “The Confession,” forthcoming in October. He lives near Charlottesville.
GRIMES: Nice piece of timing, Mr. Grisham. You get full coverage just as you sell yet another book. I certainly will not challenge anything contained in its pages: it is, after all, labeled as FICTION.
David N. Grimes, Commonwealth’s Attorney for Pittsylvania County, Virginia (1992—-).