‘I watched a woman die’: Eye-witness reveals haunting first-hand account of the execution of Teresa Lewis
By Catie Beck
On Thursday night, as death penalty protesters rang a single mournful bell outside the gates of Greensville Correction Centre, the state of Virginia executed its first woman for nearly a century. Even by the arbitrary standards of America’s capital punishment system, the sentence passed down on Teresa Lewis seemed particularly unfair to thousands of protesters from across the world who called for it to be commuted to life imprisonment. The 41-year-old grandmother’s guilt in the double murder of her husband and stepson for their money had never been in doubt. But the two men who actually carried out the shootings in 2002 escaped Death Row while psychologists who tested Lewis found her to be borderline mentally retarded.
Catie Beck, a 30-year-old local television reporter for CBS 6 News, had covered the story extensively and conducted the last interview with Lewis. She was allowed to witness the execution, the first she had attended.
I watched a woman die last night. The clock over the door leading into the state of Virginia’s death chamber read 8:55pm as Teresa Lewis, a guard holding each arm, stepped inside. Eighteen minutes later, she was dead. Lewis, a burly woman wearing blue prison-issue shirt and jeans, and a pair of slippers, a guard at each elbow, looked frightened and nervous, her glance darting around the brightly-lit room filled with prison officials. The popular image of this moment is of a desperate struggle, but old hands at executions say they have never seen that and there was none on display with Lewis.
She looked pitiably towards the cross-shaped trolley, covered in white sheets that she would soon occupy and then across at the glass-enclosed witness booth where I sat with 18 others. And then she calmly allowed the blue-uniformed members of the prison’s execution team – their ranks and ID tags removed to prevent identification – to secure by leather straps her ankles, legs, wrists and chest.
Seconds later, she uttered her last words and then I watched in stunned silence as a lethal injection coming from behind a curtain in to her arms caused her breathing to slow down and then to stop. This excruciating execution process took only 15 minutes.
‘She will be strapped on the gurney [trolley] and then sort of fall asleep’, I can recall the assistant warden saying vaguely as he briefed the witnesses earlier.
It was the first time I had attended an execution. After a clothed strip search, the witnesses boarded non-descript white vans and drove towards the unit where condemned prisoners are held at Greensville. With macabre humour, inmates have nicknamed it Hellsville.
Conversations between us became more awkward and the nervousness increasingly became harder to hide as the van approached an open door to her unit. We filed in to a narrow hallway where we got our first sight of members, all volunteers from the prison staff, of the execution team. I saw at least six of them, their sudden abundance sharpening my anticipation as I realised I was getting closer to watching only the second execution of a woman in Virginia history.
I suddenly became aware that I was perhaps about to hear the voice of a woman I had spoken to at length two days earlier on the phone.
The small execution room, around 20 ft by 30 ft, was crowded. A lawyer, a member of the governor’s public safety staff, an official from the department of corrections as well as the warden and half a dozen members of the execution team were in situ. They were only those we could see – the ones who actually injected the drugs into Lewis remained hidden with their tools behind a blue curtain. The warden, George Hinkle, and his underlings moved around with purpose in what was evidently a well-practised drill.
On a wall close to the door where the prisoner was to enter, a red phone provided an open line to the state governor’s office. A guard remained with the phone pressed to his ear right up until the execution began, just in case the governor suddenly changed his mind about denying clemency to Teresa Lewis. An adjacent wall bore another phone, this one off-white coloured, which connected to the warden’s office in case of a last minute stay of execution arriving by fax.
At around 8.50pm, Lewis’s devoted lawyer, James Rocap, and her “spiritual advisor”, the Reverend Julie Perry, her chaplain at the women’s prison where Lewis spent the past seven years, joined us in the witness area. He later said the three of them spent her last minutes holding hands and singing hymns. The Rev Perry cried softly from the rear row of seats.
The atmosphere inside the witness booth was sombre, tense and – apart from the Rev Perry – completely silent. A few minutes later, the man holding the red phone used his fingers to separate the horizontal blinds on the window of the door to the execution chamber. I knew he was watching for Teresa Lewis and I felt my heartbeat quicken
The door opened and Lewis entered after the governor stood in front of her and read out her death warrant. She looked much like a recent photograph taken of her in prison. The difference was that in the photo Teresa is smiling. Now she just looked frightened. My mind started to wander to our recent interview. One of the lines I remember clearly – “If I could just hold on a little longer, I will rejoice in Heaven some day”.
I wondered as she lay there if she was trying to “hold on” or if she was wanting to quickly meet her end. I also wondered if she would start singing. Once she was lying flat and bound, I could see her breathing becoming faster. Her feet were twitching as, her body secured but arms still free, a heavy blue cloth curtain was pulled over the window of the execution room.
For the next several minutes I had to imagine the process as Lewis had an intravenous line inserted in to her arms that would deliver the three drugs that will be injected to take her life.
The process involves three chemicals.
The first, thiopental sodium, is intended to render the inmate unconscious.
The second, pancuronium bromide, stops breathing.
The third, potassium chloride, stops the heart.
The five minutes I spent behind that curtain felt like 20. When it opened, she was lying still. The warden leant over Lewis and asked if she had any last words. She asked “Is Kathy present?” Kathy Clifton, the daughter and sister of the murder victims, had earlier indicated she would attend the execution but Lewis received no answer.
“I just want Kathy to know that I love you and I’m very sorry,” said Lewis, her voice quivering.
Inside the witness room, Lewis’s spiritual advisor stood, with a red face streaming tears, clutching a holy book in one hand and the hand of Lewis’s lawyer in the other. Kathy Clifton had said Lewis was evil. If she was there, sitting unseen in the victim’s family witness room, I wondered what she must have been thinking now. The next few minutes were the last of Lewis’s life. They were silent and almost entirely motionless, as if the room was frozen in time.
Some of the chamber’s occupants looked at Lewis, others studiously did not. I couldn’t see her face but I watched Lewis’s chest, covered by a brown leather strap, start to take deep breaths and then slow ones. Just like the man said, she looked as though she’d fallen asleep. Some can be heard snoring as the drugs take effect. Lewis’s chest was rising and falling at larger intervals. And then suddenly I could see no more movement. Just a moment later the warden pronounced her time of death – 9:13pm and the curtain was drawn on us for a final time.
As I went outside and spoke to the media of what I had seen, I realised I hadn’t actually reacted to it. Physically, I felt like I had just run several miles in my navy suit, which was nearly drenched with sweat. But I understood I had decided that in order to get through the process and report what I saw, I’d need to be as clinical and mechanical as those who were carrying it out.
In our conversation Teresa Lewis seemed a simple woman. She grew up poor, the daughter of two workers in a local textile mill Southwest Virginia. Part of the controversy in her case surrounded her intelligence but it seemed that in her seven years awaiting death, Lewis understood her crime and, to a degree, her punishment. She told me she devoted almost all of her thoughts and prayers to it.
I had been told I wouldn’t sleep much after the execution and I didn’t. Her voice was there. Her face was there through most of the hours I spent trying to rest. The death penalty is so contentious here that journalists must not reveal where they stand – I’m not allowed to say whether I feel sorry for her fate or glad. But this was the first time I’ve witnessed an execution. Perhaps had I not interviewed Lewis, it would have been easier.
I think she died with a greater understanding of what she did and knowing that is something I will have to live with.