The Need to Mourn and Organize: Reflections on the Execution of Teresa Lewis

By Sue Osthoff
September 24, 2010

Sue is the Director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women.

As you probably have heard by now, Teresa Lewis — a woman with severe intellectual disabilities — was put to death by the state of Virginia last night. I am having such a difficult time finding words right now due, in part, to the fact that I am still in the stage of disbelief. I keep thinking that I will wake up and someone will say to me that it is not true that yet another state-sanctioned murder just occurred of another person whose full story was never heard by any court (in this case, the full story included essential exculpatory evidence), and who was killed despite having excellent legal arguments that the Supreme Court refused to entertain.

Teresa's first lawyer let her plead guilty to a capital murder charge. The two triggermen in this case — one who admitted to being the mastermind and leader of the group — were sentenced to life in prison. Yet, Teresa got a death sentence because the judge mistakenly believed that she was the mastermind of the plan to kill her husband and step-son. This judge never heard evidence about test results that indicated that Teresa was borderline mentally retarded. Despite this evidence and numerous other powerful reasons to commute Teresa Lewis' death sentence to life, Governor Robert F. McDonnell said he found no compelling reasons to do so. Where is the justice in this so-called criminal "justice" system?

As you know, our office was working hard to organize people to act to try to prevent this horrific travesty of justice. We reached out and asked people to sign the petition in support of Teresa and to call and write the governor to urge him to do the right thing and commute Teresa's sentence. We asked for your help and support of Teresa and we got it. Not only did hundreds of you sign the petition, write to and call the Governor, you also wrote and called us to let you us know that you were walking arm in arm with us as we fought for Teresa's life.

Additionally, we were also in touch with the Teresa's legal team, national and state-wide anti-death penalty organizations, and a top-notch team of capital litigators to work on legal and organizing strategies during what turned out to be the final days of Teresa's life. Again, we reached out to our rich network of colleagues and asked for help and we got it. Big time. Many smart, busy people made time to think with us.

It is an incredible honor to work with such an amazing and generous network of justice-loving, passionate people who are committed to creating a world that is just, sane, and fair, and who are willing to work their butts off for that goal (including my fabulous coworkers). Doing this work each and every day is not a job, it truly is a calling.

Yesterday, as it was becoming increasingly clear the execution would go forward, our email mailboxes were filled with messages of love and support for Teresa, her legal team, and the staff of the National Clearinghouse. The words of the messages keep bouncing around in my head and my heart: solidarity, light, connected, am with you, love, compassion, honor, admire, strength, support, struggle, appreciate, no words, aware, heart-space, gratitude, peace, justice, am with you, am with you, am with you, am with you. As one woman wrote: We are all very privileged to do this work together. We are.

I keep thinking that Joe Hill's admonition, "don't mourn: organize," needs to be slightly modified. I think we need to both mourn and organize. We need to properly mourn the tragic death of Teresa Lewis. And, as we mourn her death, we need to remember that another person is set to be executed today (in GA). Seven more people are scheduled to be executed before October 22nd. This insanity needs to end. And it needs to end soon.

Back in 2001, when Betty Beets was executed (in Texas), I wrote: "Thank you for your commitment to justice. I am encouraged that there is now national public discourse about all the problems with the death penalty. It is my hope that the battered women's advocacy movement can be a big part of arguing against the death penalty. It is my hope that those of us committed to justice and to ending violence, will speak out strongly and articulately against state-sanctioned murder." That was nine years ago. It remains true today. Hey, state DV coalitions and national organizations: you'll hear from me next week!

My dear friend and colleague, Sue Julian, co-coordinator of the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, wrote that she and her coworkers "stand with you [our staff] in solidarity on all fronts where justice is denied, sought after, and celebrated." Last night, justice was horribly denied. But let's not even pause in our work seeking justice. Ok? And may we have reasons to celebrate soon.

With deep gratitude for being part of this community,

Sue Osthoff
Director