Opponents of capital punishment have long maintained that courts administer the death penalty unfairly. Critics say that juries and judges sentence certain types of people to death more readily than others. Now we witness the execution of Teresa Lewis in Virginia, for conspiracy with two gunmen to murder her husband and stepson. Did she deserve the sentence, or was she one of those certain types?
Suppose Lewis had been Lindsay Lohan pretty, Paris Hilton rich, and Margaret Thatcher smart. Intelligent, wealthy, beautiful people commit murders, too. Lewis was homely, lived in a trailer, and tested with a low IQ. If she had all three qualities – wealth, beauty, and intelligence – she would never suffer death at the hands of the state. If she had two of the three, she would not. Only one would likely have saved her from lethal injection. Commit a crime when you lack all the qualities that make people like you, and you will receive no mercy.
How can you explain that the two gunmen in this murder received a lighter sentence than Lewis? The judge claimed that Lewis was the “mastermind” of the plot, “the head of the serpent.” The evidence indicates she was a follower, that one of the gunmen led the plot. Lewis confessed to the crime, pleaded guilty, and helped the court convict her two accomplices. That kind of behavior usually wins leniency. Why did Lewis receive the harshest possible sentence nevertheless? She was not likeable. She did not have the qualities that impel a sympathetic relationship with people we don’t know. In fact, she had qualities that repel us: ugly, aggressive, greedy, dumb and poor.
Add to that another element of social decision making. People show a marked reluctance to reverse a formal, substantive decision others have made. If Lewis could not win sympathy from the people in the courtroom during her original hearings, she was done. On appeal – right up to the Supreme Court and Virginia’s governor – people conclude: I find no reason to overturn the lower court’s decision. Of course you can’t find a good reason, because the lower court’s decision had no good reason to begin with. To overturn the lower court’s decision, you have to find fault with some element of the court’s reasoning. You can’t say:
“I find the court sentenced you to death because it didn’t like you. It sentenced you to death because you’re an unappealing character who committed an egregious crime. I’m going to overturn your sentence because the court had no grounds in law for applying a punishment more severe than the one it applied to your accomplices. You deserve no more and no less mercy than they did.”
Who is going to say that? You can’t acknowledge that kind of thing in public. You’ll let the decision stand, because that’s what happens when you place a criminal outside the gates, outside the boundary of social acceptance. You don’t let the person back in. Execute the person. That is the final act of exclusion, the final act that relieves the community from ever having to look at you again.
Ask yourself: if Paris Hilton had committed this crime, would we have executed her?