Image: Death penalty protestors
Steve Helber  /  AP
Death penalty protestors hold signs as they protest the execution of Teresa Lewis outside the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va., Thursday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/24/2010 6:45:40 AM ET 2010-09-24T10:45:40

The first woman executed in the United States in five years was put to death in Virginia on Thursday for arranging the killings of her husband and a stepson over a $250,000 insurance payment.

Teresa Lewis, 41, who defense attorneys said was borderline mentally disabled, died by injection at 9:13 p.m. Thursday, authorities said. She became the first woman executed in Virginia in nearly a century.

Supporters and relatives of the victims watched her execution at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt.

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Lewis enticed two men, Matthew Shallenberger and Rodney Fuller, through sex, cash and a promised cut in the insurance policy to shoot her husband, Julian Clifton Lewis Jr., and his son, Charles, as they slept in October 2002.

Both triggermen were sentenced to life in prison and Shallenberger committed suicide in 2006.

Lewis appeared fearful, her jaw clenched, as she was escorted into the death chamber. She glanced tensely around at 14 assembled corrections officials before being bound to a gurney with heavy leather straps.

'I'm very sorry'
Moments before her execution, Lewis asked if her husband's daughter was near.

Kathy Clifton, Lewis' stepdaughter, was in an adjacent witness room blocked from the inmate's view by a two-way mirror.

"I want Kathy to know that I love her and I'm very sorry," Lewis said.

Then, as the drugs flowed into her body, her feet bobbed but she otherwise remained motionless. A guard lightly tapped her on the shoulder reassuringly as she slipped into death.

"Tonight the death machine exterminated the beautiful childlike and loving spirit of Teresa Lewis," said the condemned woman's lawyer, James Rocap.

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"She was very peaceful," before she entered the death chamber, he said. "We thought that we were supposed to be helping her, while she was actually helping us," he said about the days leading to her death during which she laughed, sang and prayed.

Her final meal was fried chicken, sweet peas with butter, German chocolate cake and Dr Pepper, the Washington Post reported.

The U.S. Supreme Court and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell declined to intervene. All her legal appeals were exhausted, her attorney said.

More than 7,300 appeals
More than 7,300 appeals to stop the execution — the first of a woman in Virginia since 1912 — had been made to the governor in a state second only to Texas in the number of people it executes.

Texas held the most recent U.S. execution of a woman in 2005. Out of more than 1,200 people put to death since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, only 11 have been women.

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The Lewis execution stirred an unusual amount of attention because of her gender, claims she lacked the intelligence to mastermind the killings and the post-conviction emergence of defense evidence that one of the triggermen manipulated her.

Shallenberger, who reportedly wanted to become a hit man for the mob, said he had used Lewis to get money to fund a career as a New York drug dealer, in a letter to an ex-girlfriend, the Washington Post said.

Lewis' supporters also said she was a changed woman. They pointed to testimonials from former prison chaplains and inmates that Lewis comforted and inspired other inmates with her faith and the hymns and country gospel tunes she sang at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women where she was long held.

Hours before her execution, Lewis met with family, her spiritual adviser and supporters at the Greensville Correctional Center.

Her spiritual adviser, the Rev. Julie Perry, stood sobbing as she later witnessed the execution, clutching a religious book.

Throughout her life, a faith in God had been a seeming constant for Lewis — whether it was the prayer with her husband or her ministry behind bars.

Image: A medical examiners truck leaves the Greensville Correctional Center
Steve Helber  /  AP
A medical examiners truck leaves the Greensville Correctional Center after the execution of Teresa Lewis in Jarratt, Va., Thursday.

International appeals
Her fate also drew appeals from the European Union, an indignant rebuke from Iran and the disgust of thousands of people.

In a letter this month to McDonnell, the European Union asked the governor to commute her sentence to life, citing Lewis' mental capacity. Her lawyers have said testing shows Lewis is borderline mentally retarded.

The European Union's ambassador to the U.S. wrote that the EU "considers that the execution of people with mental disorders of all types is contrary to minimum standards of human rights."

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said in an online briefing Thursday it "deplored" the rejection of Lewis' plea for clemency and the Supreme Court's decision not to hear her appeal.

Earlier this week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused Western media of having a double standard in reporting on the Lewis execution.

He compared coverage of the Lewis case to the "heavy propaganda" campaign against the case of an Iranian woman who had been sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery.

"Meanwhile, nobody objects to the case of an American woman who is going to be executed," he was quoted as saying during a speech Monday to Islamic clerics and other figures in New York.

Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center agreed that the death penalty is a human rights issue, but said the Iranian president is "the wrong messenger."

"The United States is, of course, interested in human rights abuses," he said.

Drugs, stealing, affairs, the Bible
But by her own admission, Lewis' life has been marked by outrageous bouts of sex and betrayal even as she hewed to the trappings of Christianity.

"I was doing drugs, stealing, lying and having several affairs during my marriages," Lewis wrote in a statement that was read at a prison religious service in August. "I went to church every Sunday, Friday and revivals but guess what? I didn't open my Bible at home, only when I was at church."

Her father said she ran off to get married, then later abandoned her children and ran off with her sister's husband. Then she had an affair with her sister's fiance while at the same time having an affair with another man.

Lewis' life took a deadly turn after she married Julian Lewis, whom she met at a Danville textile factory in 2000. Two years later, his son Charles entered the U.S. Army Reserve.

When he was called for active duty he obtained the $250,000 life insurance policy, naming his father the beneficiary and providing temptation for Teresa Lewis.

Both men would have to die for Lewis to receive the insurance payout.

She met at a Walmart with the two men who ultimately killed Julian Lewis and his son. Lewis began an affair with Shallenberger and later had sex with Fuller. She also arranged sex with Fuller and her daughter, who was 16, in a parking lot.

'Baby, baby, baby'
On the night before Halloween in 2002, after she prayed with her husband, Lewis got out of bed, unlocked the door to their mobile home and put the couple's pit bull in a bedroom so the animal wouldn't interfere.

Shallenberger and Fuller came in and shot both men several times with the shotguns Lewis had bought for them.

Charles Lewis died quickly, but her husband, his body riddled with birdshot, was still alive when police arrived and moaned "baby, baby, baby," the Washington Post said.

On a grassy knoll beside the correctional center, those opposed to the execution protested with signs and banners in the twilight Thursday. Critics said they were repulsed by Virginia's killing of a woman.

Clifton had said she had forgiven Teresa Lewis and had not asked for death penalty, but she also said "I feel like once it's all said and done, I'll be able to shut the door on this chapter and move on with the future," The Washington Post reported.

"I will know for a fact she will never be able to harm anyone again," Clifton added, according to the Post. "She claims to be a Christian, and I don't know how strong her faith is, but I have faith in my Lord. He says not to kill, but He also says to obey the law of the land. If she was truly a spiritual person, she would be happy to go along with any sentence."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Va. to execute first woman in nearly a century

  1. Closed captioning of: Va. to execute first woman in nearly a century

    >>> the food and drug administration has just ruled that they will allow the diabetes pill avandia to stay on the market but stay on with restrictions. fda panel recommended in july that avandia stay on the market but with additional warnings to be placed on its label.

    >>> the state of virginia is now preparing to execute a woman for the first time in nearly a century. it's a case that's drawn international attention and outramg from the european union , even iran's president. tonight at 9:00, theresa lewis is scheduled to die by lethal injection. she is convicted of hiring a mittm hitman. covers crime and the courts and she interviewed theresa lewis. she joins me now on the telephone and let's start with the legal appeals part of this. have they all been exhausted?

    >> yes. the supreme court has denied her petition for a stay and the governor of virginia has refused to grant her requests ask at this point it looks like it will go forward tonight.

    >> maria , with your talks with her a lot of attention made on the fact that she has an i.q. of 72. what did you walk away with your conversation with her?

    >> the supreme court does not allow the state to execute people who are mentally retarded. maria is borderline and she falls just above the definition. so, her supporters say she's right on that line and she didn't have intelectual capacity but the prosecutors say she did a lot of things, took a lot of actions to make this crime happen. she gave the gunman money and opened the doors so they could get into the house and she really knew what she was doing.

    >> from the standpoint of where she stands now and i know we said all the legal routes have been exhausted. does she understand what's hapening to her and what has happened to her?

    >> you know, when i spoke with her, she said she did understand, she understood that a death sentence was possible, but she was really pleading for her life at that point. she said she wanted to live and she thought she had some good she could offer other woman in prison.

    >> maria , thank you for joining us and shedding light on this story.

    >> thanks so much. take care.

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