Is Teresa Lewis's Execution A Gender Issue?

The Supreme Court has rejected Virginia death-row inmate Teresa Lewis's bid for a stay of execution, but Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg voted in favor of the stay. So is this a gender issue?

Lewis is scheduled to be executed Thursday for orchestrating the murder of her husband. But the men who actually shot him got life in prison, not the death penalty, and groups like Amnesty International have opposed Lewis's execution. Frank Green of the Richmond Times-Dispatch writes that "Lewis' supporters contend her low IQ, personality disorder and pain pill addiction left her incapable of being the mastermind of the crime and argued she should receive the same life sentences as the triggermen." And one of these triggermen actually wrote a statement saying the crime was his idea. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court has denied a request to review the case. The only dissenting votes were, in Green's words, "Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, two of the court's three women."

The issue of gender keeps coming up in coverage of Lewis's case, probably because she's the first woman to be executed in Virginia since 1912. But were Sotomayor's and Ginsburg's votes really about gender? Ginsburg has shown opposition to the death penalty in the past — in 2001, she voiced support for a proposed Maryland moratorium on capital punishment, saying, "I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial. People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty." And she supported overturning the death penalty in Williams v. Taylor, a case markedly similar to Lewis's in which defendant Terry Williams's potential intellectual disability had not been presented at his trial.

Sotomayor's record is a little slimmer — the Times noted that in back in 1998, as a Federal District Court judge, she admitted there were "tensions" around the application of the death penalty, but refused to declare it unconstitutional. She wrote her first opinion on the issue as a Supreme Court Justice in Wood v. Allen, another case of a possibly intellectually disabled defendant. Murder defendant Holly Wood claimed that his lawyer had shown incompetence by failing to introduce a psych report detailing his disability, and thus that his death penalty conviction should be overturned. But Sotomayor said the lawyer "made a strategic decision not to pursue evidence of Wood's alleged retardation" — perhaps because the psych report also revealed Wood's attempts to commit another murder (interestingly, Ginsburg voted with her). Sotomayor's views on the death penalty in general and its relationship to intellectual disability in particular are still a little bit difficult to parse. But especially given Ginsburg's record — and the fact that fellow female justice Elena Kagan voted against granting the stay — it seems simplistic to break the case down along gender lines. The real questions in the case remain: does someone in Teresa Lewis's situation deserve execution? And, more broadly, does anyone? For now, the Supreme Court has answered yes to both.

Supreme Court Rejects Stay Of Execution For Teresa Lewis [Richmond Times-Dispatch]
Supreme Court Refuses To Block Woman's Execution [AP, via Newser]

Earlier: Is Virginia's Death-Row Woman Our Sakineh Ashtiani?