« Would and should the feds sue California if it legalizes marijuana through Prop 19? | Main | "Obama backs off strict crime policy" »

September 12, 2010

John Grisham finds mysterious Virginia's application of the death penalty

Famed lawyer-author John Grisham has this long commentary in Sunday's Washington Post, which is headlined "Teresa Lewis didn't pull the trigger.  Why is she on death row?".  Here are excerpts:

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

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. Such inconsistencies mock the idea that ours is a system grounded in equality before the law.

September 12, 2010 at 12:10 AM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference John Grisham finds mysterious Virginia's application of the death penalty:


Let me understand. Masterminds of murder should not get the death penalty, but only those who complied with their orders and pulled the trigger. So Osama Bin Laden has flown no planes into any buildings. He gets to go to dinner with the prosecutor to name his foot soldiers so they may be executed. Or is Grisham's argument that females should not face the death penalty?

Heard him speak at a famous university. Students in the back started imitating him to stay awake.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 12, 2010 7:13:43 AM

Grisham's piece is a joke.

Posted by: federalist | Sep 12, 2010 7:34:23 PM

Now we see why Grisham became an author.

Posted by: mjs | Sep 12, 2010 8:09:05 PM

mjs --

Unfortunately, he's an author who should get his material from someone other than claudio.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 12, 2010 8:56:30 PM

The only unfairness would be if she lived, while many male killers for money have died in the chair or on the gurney in Virginia.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Sep 12, 2010 10:45:33 PM

I can see where Grisham was coming from, I guess. From the sounds of it, Lewis is a very fragile girl who can be easily motivated by her emotions and the people around her. It doesnt sound like a great defense against the death penalty, but the fact that she broke down doesn't scream hard bent killer. But then again, the technicalities of her case makes her subject to the punishment.

Posted by: Radio Head | Sep 13, 2010 1:38:50 AM

She broke down because she was caught. She is crying only for herself.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 13, 2010 1:41:41 AM

I guess ever since Grisham wrote the book about the 2 Oklahoma death row inmates who were freed, he has joined the left. I usually read his books, but I think I will pass on the new one coming out.

Posted by: DaveP | Sep 13, 2010 7:18:59 AM

But his books are so horrible.

Posted by: Bill B. | Sep 13, 2010 9:06:58 AM

More rousing verses from the death-penalty-zealots choir.

Posted by: John K | Sep 13, 2010 10:13:14 AM

We need to kill this woman and only then will we exact the REVENGE our society needs!!!

Posted by: neanderthal | Sep 13, 2010 11:36:20 AM

I think the strongest point is the one about unequal treatment for similar crimes. The eighth amendment is supposed to require that state appellate courts police death sentences within their state for proportionality -- to avoid, for example, a situation where homicide under XYZ circumstances is effectively a capital crime in certain counties, but not in other counties. Yet, in reality, almost every major death-penalty state now operates under a system where the most predictive factor for a death sentence is the county of the offense (and/or sometimes the judge assigned).

The appellate courts provide only rubber-stamp proportionality review; indeed, in many states, you would look in vain for a single post-Furman reversal on this ground. This may be understandable, since real proportionality review might require them to vacate a good number of death sentences, and that could be disastrous for an elected official, which most of these judges are. But that doesn't make the resulting cohort of sentences any less arbitrary or any more constitutional.

In sum, some of the rest of this piece reads like fluff and overheated rhetoric, but Mr. Grisham has identified a real, persistent problem as to the issue of arbitrariness arising from extreme variation in application of the law among different intra-state jurisdictions and decision-makers.

Posted by: NC Atty | Sep 13, 2010 11:40:36 AM

If you read the Virginia Supreme Court's opinion, it goes into detail the trial judge's reasoning for sentencing Lewis to death. Her lawyers were gambling that the judge, who had never imposed a death sentence, would give her life. Unfortunately for Lewis he didn't. This case hasn't been considered by SCOTUS yet from the 4th circuit's June opinion. She has a Ring issue that is curious. We will see.

Posted by: DaveP | Sep 13, 2010 11:46:47 AM

NC, Atty, You say, "Yet, in reality, almost every major death-penalty state now operates under a system where the most predictive factor for a death sentence is the county of the offense (and/or sometimes the judge assigned)." That is especially true in places like Harris County, Texas. There are legitimate reasons for the differences. The difference between Harris and the other counties is that in Harris they have developed the methodology to pick and try cases that will hold up under appeal. Additionally, they worked very hard to put alums of the Harris County DA's office into the Appeals system. This was the result of a concerted 20 year effort by then DA Johnny Holmes. Other counties in Texas, especially smaller counties, had not the resources or sustained committment to create such a mill for capital cases.

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Sep 13, 2010 5:36:32 PM

NC Atty --

Rural areas tend to like the DP; urban areas, not so much. That produces different treatment, but not invidious discrimination, i.e., discrimination based on some constitutionaly prohibited factor.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 13, 2010 6:59:01 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB