VIRGINIA CHRISTIAN WAS a ruthless murderer who deliberately beat a frail old woman to the floor, rammed a towel down her throat with a broom handle, and then robbed her.
Or was she a simple, uneducated 17-year-old girl who got into a fight with her employer and accidentally killed her?
Teresa Wilson Bean Lewis is a cold-blooded schemer who arranged for two accomplices to shoot her husband and stepson, and then rifled through her husband's wallet as he lay dying.
Or was she a pathologically dependent, drug-addicted woman who obediently went along with her lover's depraved murder-for-money plot?
Virginia Christian was the first woman to be executed in Virginia since 1908, when the state assumed the responsibility for conducting executions. On Sept. 23, Teresa Lewis may become the second.
Their cases aroused the attention of the nation — Christian's because of her age and sex, and Lewis' because of evidence revealed after her sentence that suggested she might not be a criminal mastermind, as she had been portrayed.
In both cases, information came out after the trial that had the potential to change each woman's fate. In both cases, the final decision rested in the hands of the governor.
The guilt of the accused was unquestioned. Their crimes were savage. But did they deserve death?
“The most cold-blooded and brutal crime”
Virginia Christian had just turned 17 when she was executed in 1912 for murdering her employer. Photo courtesy the Library of Virginia.ON MONDAY, March 18, 1912, 13-year-old Harriette Belote came home from school and followed a trail of blood to a downstairs bedroom. There she discovered her mother, 51-year-old Ida V. Belote, lying face down on the floor.
Smashed crockery and blood were scattered everywhere. Belote had cuts on her head, bruises on her throat and a towel rammed into her mouth, pushing her tongue back into her throat. The coroner determined she had died of strangulation.
It didn't take long for police to identify a suspect. Witnesses had seen Virginia Christian, Belote's young black washerwoman, going to the Belote house Monday morning and running out at around 2 p.m. Around 4 p.m., Christian bought a nickel's worth of candy from a corner store, then went home.
Police found a bloody shirtwaist under Christian's mattress and a bloody rag jammed behind the stove. Christian's apron, underclothes and shoes were spotted with blood. Even more damning, she had the dead woman's pocketbook, containing $5, and a gold ring belonging to one of Belote's daughters.
The Belote killing was a sensational case. The Newport News Daily Press called it “the most cold-blooded and brutal crime committed on the Virginia Peninsula within a generation.”
Ida Belote was the white daughter of a prominent Hampton grocer. Recently widowed, she had eight living children. She was frail — 5 foot 1 inch and between 90 and 100 pounds. Christian was the same height, but weighed 146 pounds.
Christian was represented by two prominent black lawyers: J. Thomas Newsome and George Washington Fields, who was blind. The trial began in April and lasted only two days. Christian did not testify on her own behalf, which was a decision her team would come to regret. After one hour of deliberations, the jury found Christian guilty of first degree murder.
Fields and Newsome asked that the judge set the verdict aside as contrary to the evidence, and cited a statute giving children younger than 17 the right to be sent to a reform school. The judge overruled their objections. He directed Christian to stand as he pronounced the sentence: death in the electric chair. The courtroom was silent.
Justice was “swift, certain and severe,” as it often was in Virginia, says Derryn Moten, an associate professor of the humanities at Alabama State University who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Christian's case. “Virginia prided itself on not having the kind of mob outrages” — in other words, lynchings — “that were prevalent in other states,” he notes. Any whispers of mob justice for Christian were swiftly quelled by the death sentence.
The day after her sentencing, Christian confessed to a minister and a Daily Press reporter that she had killed Belote, but not intentionally. Belote had accused her of stealing a gold locket, Christian said, and she denied it. “Finally,” she says, “we both got furiously mad.”
According to Christian, Belote threw a ceramic spittoon, which struck her on the right arm. Belote then went for a piece of a broomstick that was in the room. Christian grabbed another and hit Belote in the head, knocking her down. She shoved the towel in Belote's mouth to prevent her from screaming, she said, and didn't intend to murder her.
Christian's confession failed to change her fate. The Circuit Court of Elizabeth City County and the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals both denied her a new trial. Christian's life was left in the hands of Gov. William Hodges Mann, who was immediately besieged with appeals.
“I am naturally inclined to mercy … but I must and do bear in mind that mercy to criminals is frequently cruelty to innocent people,” wrote Gov. William Hodges Mann. Mann declined to commute Christian's sentence. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.Her lawyers' petition for clemency pointed out that there was “no proof whatsoever of premeditation.” Newsome wrote a letter to the governor expressing his regret for not allowing Christian to tell her version of events on the stand. The editor of The Chicago Daily World newspaper wrote Mann an impassioned telegram: “We believe that civilization has carried us beyond the point where it is necessary to strap this 17 year old child … in a chair and take away her life.”
Christian's paralyzed mother, Charlotte Christian, sent the governor a painstakingly handwritten letter. “They say that the whole thing is in yours hands and I know Governor if you will onely save my child … God will bless you for ever.”
Mann was not moved. He replied to Charlotte Christian with a three-line, typewritten note. “I have just received your letter of the 12th,” he wrote, “and sympathize with you very deeply. I am always sorry when anybody gets into trouble.”
While he later stated that sex and race had no bearing on his clemency decision, the one hesitation Mann seemed to have concerned Christian's age. On July 13, he asked the superintendent of the Virginia Penitentiary for his opinion of her appearance. Although Christian said — and her school records showed — she was about to turn 17, the superintendent said “she looks like she might be a year or two older” and appeared to be a well-developed woman.
Mann declined to stop her execution. “I have reached the conclusion that Virginia Christian is guilty of a wilful and premeditated murder, as cruel, if not more so, than any of which I have knowledge,” he wrote. He did grant Christian an additional two weeks for spiritual preparation.
The day before her execution Christian wrote this statement: “I know that I am getting no more than I deserve. I am prepared to answer for my sins, and I believe that the Lord has forgiven me. I fear that Mrs. Belote may not have been a Christian. I blame no one for my situation. I hope to meet Mrs. Belote in heaven. I thank all who have worked on my behalf.”
On Aug. 16, 1912, Christian went to her death at the State Penitentiary in Richmond, accompanied by two ministers. Straps were fixed around her body and a black cap was pulled down over her eyes. After one jolt, Christian convulsed and died in the electric chair at 7:23 a.m.
The Teresa Lewis case
Scheduled to die by lethal injection Sept. 23, Teresa Lewis would be the 12th woman executed in the United States since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. Photo courtesy the Virginia Dept. of Corrections.NINETY-EIGHT YEARS later, Teresa Lewis sits in a 6-foot by 8-foot cell, awaiting her execution by lethal injection on Sept. 23. Because she is the only woman on death row in Virginia, Lewis is housed in the segregation area at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, where other female inmates are placed for disciplinary infractions.
It's a “crazy, cacophonous wing,” says the Rev. Lynn Litchfield, a former prison chaplain who visited Lewis for six years, speaking with her weekly through the slot in her steel cell door. Although Lewis is kept in isolation, the other inmates know her as the woman who sings country and gospel songs in a fine voice and prays with them through the air vents. Lewis often watches televangelists on her 5-inch, black-and-white television and has worn out the large-print, New International Version Bible that Litchfield gave her when she arrived at Fluvanna.
Since leaving her chaplain's position in January 2009, Litchfield has become a vocal advocate for sparing Lewis' life. “Nobody is saying Teresa is a saint,” Litchfield says. “I'm not saying Teresa is a saint. I am saying that her life has meaning and purpose in prison and she could actually do some good there.”
It hasn't been easy to find supporters for Lewis' cause. Once people know all the details of the case, they can often see the case for clemency, Litchfield says. But first, “they have to engage in the story. And it's an unpleasant story.”
According to court documents, here's what happened. Teresa Wilson Bean met Julian Clifton Lewis Jr. in the spring of 2000, when they both worked at the now-shuttered Dan River Inc. textile mill. Bean moved into Lewis' Danville home in June 2000 and they married after that.
Julian Lewis' older son, Jason Clifton Lewis, died in a car accident in December 2001, leaving his father more than $200,000 from a life insurance policy. In August 2002, Julian Lewis' younger son, Charles J. Lewis, an Army reservist, designated his father as the primary beneficiary of his $250,000 life insurance policy. Teresa Lewis was the secondary beneficiary.
In the fall of 2002, Lewis met two young men while standing in line at Wal-Mart in Danville: Rodney L. Fuller and Matthew J. Shallenberger. They exchanged telephone numbers, and soon afterward Lewis began a sexual relationship with both men. Lewis and Shallenberger began to discuss the possibility that Shallenberger, with Fuller's help, would kill Julian Lewis, and they would share the insurance proceeds.
Teresa Lewis gave the men $1,200, which they used to purchase two shotguns, another gun, and ammo. After an initial attempt to kill Julian Lewis while he was driving, Teresa Lewis, Shallenberger and Fuller decided to murder both Julian Lewis and his son Charles at their trailer in Pittsylvania County.
Teresa Lewis left the back door unlocked and early in the morning of Oct. 30, 2002, Shallenberger and Fuller came into the bedroom she shared with Julian Lewis. Teresa Lewis got up and went into the kitchen. Shallenberger then shot Julian Lewis several times. As her husband lay dying, Teresa Lewis came into the room, retrieved his wallet and his pants, and went back to the kitchen.
Fuller shot Charles Lewis three times, then, frustrated that he “wouldn't die,” shot him twice more. The two men divided the $300 from Julian Lewis' wallet and left. Teresa Lewis waited 45 minutes and then called the police to report that an intruder had shot her husband and stepson.
Despite the shotgun wounds in his chest, abdomen, pelvis, legs and arms, Julian Lewis was still alive when the deputies arrived at 4:18 a.m. “Baby, baby, baby, baby,” he moaned. “My wife knows who done this to me,” Julian Lewis told Deputy Corey Webb.
Almost immediately, the scheme began to fall apart. Lewis unsuccessfully tried to withdraw $50,000 from Julian Lewis' account with a forged check. A little more than a week after the murders, she confessed to police that she had offered Shallenberger money if he would kill her husband. Lewis pleaded guilty to seven felonies: two counts of capital murder for hire, one count of conspiracy to commit capital murder, one count of robbery and three firearms charges.
The Pittsylvania Circuit Court found Lewis' crimes to be “wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman,” and sentenced her to death for each conviction of capital murder for hire. The Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the death sentence in 2004, citing “the special heinousness” of the murder and the fact that “the defendant was the mastermind of the plan to kill her husband and stepson solely for greed and monetary gain.”
Shallenberger and Fuller were both sentenced to life in prison.
Mastermind or patsy?
Rodney Fuller, Matthew Shallenberger and Teresa Lewis conspired to kill Julian Clifton Lewis Jr. and his son, Charles J. Lewis, for life-insurance money. Lewis was sentenced to death for her role as the mastermind in the crime; Fuller has since said Shallenberger planned the killings.THAT'S THE OFFICIAL story. But since Lewis' sentencing, evidence has come to light that suggests she may not have been the mastermind of the scheme.
On Aug. 22, 2003, Matthew Shallenberger wrote a letter from prison to a friend in which he says that the only reason he ever had sex with Lewis “to get her to ‘fall in love' with me so she would give me the insurance money.” Shallenberger's brother had offered to start selling him drugs for cheap, and the insurance money, he wrote, was his chance to get started as a dealer in New York.
“It was just all part of the job,” Shallenberger wrote of his relationship with Lewis. “It was just part of what had to be done to get the money.” Shallenberger committed suicide in prison in 2006.
The other gunman, Rodney Fuller, said in a sworn affidavit dated Aug. 12, 2010, that “Matthew came up with a plan to kill Teresa's husband,” and that “everyone knew that Teresa was not very smart. Matthew was the dominant one in that relationship.”
Forensic psychiatrist Barbara G. Haskins conducted a competency assessment of Lewis and found her to have an IQ of 72, in the borderline range of mental retardation. Lewis' attorneys and supporters also point to her addiction to pain medication, which they say clouded her judgment, and her diagnosis of dependent personality disorder.
No one is saying Lewis is blameless, former chaplain Litchfield says. She asserts that Lewis has sincerely repented and could lead a productive life in prison, counseling and ministering to other inmates as she has done for the last seven years.
Down to the wire
TIME IS ALMOST up for Lewis, who is now 41. There's a chance her execution could be stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is considering a petition for writ of certiorari — basically a request to review Lewis' case, based on the constitutional issue that a guilty plea in Virginia precludes a jury determination of death-penalty eligibility.
The state Attorney General's Office has filed a brief in opposition to the petition, which says, in part, that “any psychological, cognitive, and physical difficulties Lewis may have had could not explain or even mitigate the carefully calculated conduct that Lewis exhibited in carrying out these crimes.” Lewis, the brief notes, recruited the gunmen with sexual enticements from her and her daughter; dictated the circumstances of the murder, made false reports to the police and made calls to her husband's employer and stepson's commanding officer demanding the murdered victims' money.
The office will not comment further on the case, says spokesman Brian Gottstein.
Lewis' only other chance to have her sentence commuted to life in prison is with Gov. Bob McDonnell. Each of the last four governors has granted clemency in at least one instance, whether because of new evidence, questions about the mental competency of the person convicted, or because of life without parole becoming available as a sentencing option.
Teresa Lewis' former prison chaplain says Lewis has become an unofficial counselor to other inmates in segregation at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.Lewis' case for clemency primarily rests on her exemplary conduct in prison and the letter and affidavits written by Shallenberger and Fuller. Governors consider petitions for clemency in an “informal but consistent” process, says Robert E. Lee, executive director of the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center. They typically meet with representatives of both sides and review the evidence. Advisors may make a recommendation, but it's up to the governor to make the call. “Whatever the decision,” Lee says, “it will be his alone.”
In March 2010, McDonnell announced that in considering capital murder clemency requests, he would deliver his decision no later than five days before the scheduled execution date. However, “clemency petitions are to be granted only in those rare cases in which the ends of justice require such an extraordinary remedy,” the governor wrote. McDonnell has considered two other petitions for clemency, from Paul Warner Powell and Darick Demorris Walker, both convicted of murder. McDonnell declined to intervene in both cases.
Someone asked Litchfield recently if she would celebrate if Lewis' sentence were commuted. “I almost wanted to throw up,” Litchfield says. “There is nothing, nothing to celebrate in this case.” She grieves for the victims' families, she says, and rejects the idea that if she advocates for Teresa Lewis, she's an adversary of the families of Julian and Charles Lewis. “I just wonder in a hundred years how we will look back on this,” she says.
Lewis fully understands the fate she's facing, says one of her lawyers, James E. Rocap III. Although she's apprehensive, Rocap says, Lewis has placed her faith in God. The way Lewis put it, Rocap says, is that “she will be a winner either way.”