US executes grandmother despite protests

JARRATT, Virginia, Sept 24, 2010 (AFP) - A US grandmother was put to death by lethal injection in Virgina, the first women executed in the state for nearly a century, triggering outrage from anti death penalty campaigners.

Teresa Lewis, 41, convicted of masterminding the murders of her husband and step-son, was pronounced dead at 9:13 pm Thursday (0113 GMT Friday) at Greensville prison, prison official Larry Traylor said.

An activist against the death penalty stands late on September 23, 2010 outside the Greensville prison in Jarratt, Virgina. AFP

Death penalty abolitionists had championed her case, insisting she had diminished mental faculties and that smarter accomplices had taken advantage of her.

"This execution means that the system is broken," Lewis's lawyer James Rocap said after the execution.

National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty member Jack Payden-Travers, described the execution as "legal homicide. Nothing more than a legal lynching."

Lewis, who was convicted in the 2003 murder of her husband and step-son and who had an IQ of about 70, "was calm, she seemed very resolute" as she walked into the death room, Taylor said. The press pool, however, said "she looked scared, nervous."

The US Supreme Court on Tuesday turned down Lewis's appeal for a stay of execution and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, as he had signaled, did not intervene in the case.

Outside the prison, a group of about 30 opponents of the death penalty rang a bell and prayed as Lewis went to her death.

Lewis is the first female prisoner executed in the southern state since 1912, when a 17-year-old black woman name Virginia Christian was sent to the electric chair. She is also the 12th woman executed in the country since the death penalty was resumed in 1976.

Despite her low IQ, Lewis was considered fit for trial in Virginia. She pleaded guilty to hiring two men in 2002 to murder her husband and stepson to pocket their life insurance policy.

Lewis admits she left the door of the family trailer in rural Pittsylvania County open so her two young accomplices could enter and shoot her husband and his 25-year-old son.

All three pleaded guilty. The shooters got life in prison, but Lewis was sentenced to death, accused of being the mastermind of the killings.

Lewis's supporters question why she was sentenced to death when the two men who actually carried out the murder were handed life without parole.

This "is as good an example as you can find of someone who should not be put to death," Rocap told the National Law Journal before the execution.

"Teresa Lewis is a poster child for why the death penalty process is broken."

The criminal justice system is "so badly broken, it can not be saved from my view," Rocap told AFP.

Asked if the Lewis can help to change things, he said: "I hope so."

Lewis, who had an adult son and stepdaughter -- Kathy Clifton -- met her spiritual advisor and attorneys earlier Thursday and had a final meal of fried chicken, green peas with butter, chocolate cake, apple pie and a Dr Pepper soda, Taylor said.

"I just want Kathy to know I love her. And I'm very sorry," were Lewis's final words, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.

Payden-Travers told AFP he had driven Lewis's 20-year-old son, Billy Bean, to Jarrett to meet with his mother.

"He is here to have a contact visit with her, to touch her and be touched by her, for the first time since she was arrested," he said.

Lewis met her two accomplices, Rodney Fuller and Matthew Shallenberger, in a Walmart superstore. Soon she began an affair with the 22-year-old Shallenberger.

Her lawyers had argued that new evidence, including her low IQ, had appeared since her trial that should prevent her execution.

The key piece of evidence they wanted considered was a letter from Shallenberger, who killed himself in jail in 2006, in which he claimed full responsibility for the murder plot and suggests he pushed Lewis into it.

Lewis's case made global headlines this week when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad contrasted the lack of opposition to her impending execution to the "storm" surrounding a woman sentenced to be stoned in Iran.

And the Council of Europe goodwill ambassador, Bianca Jagger, urged Governor McDonnell to halt the execution in an article on the online Huffington Post Thursday, saying the execution would be "a lasting shame on the American legal system."

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