As I shared in my last post, over the past several month’s I have met some amazing women who are fighting for justice in our community and our world. My friend Lynn Litchfield is one of those women. She served as chaplain at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women from 1997 to 2009. Lynn is on a crusade to save the life of a woman, Teresa Lewis, who is scheduled to be executed later this month. Lynn is not advocating for Teresa because Teresa is innocent, she is advocating because of the injustice in Teresa’s sentencing. She is not hoping for Teresa’s release, simply Teresa’s life. She had an article published on the Newsweek site early this week and has been working diligently to raise awareness about the unique nature of Teresa’s case. I invited Lynn to be a guest blogger with me this week. Below you will find Lynn’s reflection on the case as well as her challenge to Christians everywhere. Lynn shared with me that one of the greatest challenges she has faced in advocating for Teresa is getting people to simply consider the facts with an open mind before passing judgment. I pray as you read Lynn’s words, you will be open to what she has to share.
How far does Grace stretch? How far will grace actually reach? Does unmerited favor stretch as far as prison? What about those on Death Row? What about Teresa Lewis, 41, with an IQ of 70 and the only woman on death row in Virginia. She pled guilty to capital murder for hire in the deaths of her husband and adult stepson in 2003. The judge, believing her to be the remorseless “mastermind” of the crime, sentenced the two men who actually shot the victims to life in prison but sentenced Teresa to death – twice. She is scheduled to be the first woman executed in the state of Virginia since 1912 – on September 23, 2010 unless the Governor commutes her sentence.
One of the men admitted in person and in writing (multiple times) to being the mastermind of this crime – that it was his idea as he aspired to be a mafia hitman. Teresa, who is slow and overly eager to please men, was an easy dupe. A chance meeting at a Wal-Mart and he knew he’d found his “mark.”
I served as Teresa’s Chaplain for six of my eleven plus years at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. I got to know her, representing Christ to her – on behalf of all those denominations who support the work and ministry. Yet, in some circles, when I ask people to advocate or share information about her circumstance for consideration for prayer and/or action, I get silence – or debate.
The debate generally stems from a warped understanding of grace. I have heard, “Grace is for God to give. . . not us – she should still be executed as the punishment of the state.”, “We’re relieved she’s baptized so God will have a chance to show her grace.” Somehow the injustice of Teresa’s situation is dismissed and God’s grace used as the basis of this dismissal.
I know many women whose crimes were more vicious than Teresa’s and whose IQs are much higher – but they didn’t get the death penalty. We sweep the Death Penalty into the “don’t want to think about” category in our brains. It’s too painful and overwhelming to consider. Or, is it that we fear taking a stand? Is it that we really think that our justice system is infallible? Is it that we just don’t care what happens to “those people?” Is it that we don’t want to be “soft on crime” even if it means some will be unjustly sentenced?
What about the fact that Teresa is mentally handicapped? The Supreme Court has ruled that mentally retarded individuals are not to be executed, yet the practice persists. The Court left it up to states to determine what constitutes “retarded.” In Alabama, for example, legislation is introduced each year to stop executing mentally retarded folks. It dies each year – along with those the legislation hoped to protect. In Virginia, we released Earl Washington, a mentally retarded man, from Death Row because the DNA evidence showed he was innocent. Retarded and innocent – but still Earl was sentenced to die beyond a reasonable doubt.
My own understanding of Grace has stretched since I began at the prison in 1997, it now includes murderers, sex-offenders, prostitutes, drug addicts, embezzlers, etc. I have seen the transformative power of Jesus Christ up close and personal in the lives of those who were desperate to feel loved – to experience grace. I’m not advocating for their release – but for the thought to cross our minds that their lives are not trash to be discarded without thought. We are all more than the worst things we’ve ever done.
I’m not advocating for Teresa’s release – and neither is she. We simply want her to live out the remainder of her natural life in prison where she has found a faith that is a living testimony – a witness – to the power that God has to restore souls. Her life matters in prison. Her testimony and her ministry matter.
Some have said to me, “But really, Lynn, someone on death row? How can you put yourself out there for someone on Death Row!?” My answer is, “How can I not? Grace is favor we did not merit. I did not merit God’s gift of Christ on the cross for my sins. Neither did Teresa merit the gift of Christ on the cross for hers.” But, you know what? She got it anyway. And as I approach the world around me, I want people to see the Christ in me. How can I represent Christ without allowing grace to flow through me – and not just a spiritual concept – but tangible care for “the least of these.”
The older I get and the more I encounter, the more stretchy grace becomes. I’m finding that it has no edges. It has no lines drawn in the sand. “Grace for me – but not for someone who did THAT!” just doesn’t jibe with my understanding of Christ’s sacrificial love – a physician who came for the sick and not the well.
Unless Teresa’s sentence gets commuted, Teresa will die in a few very short days. The world within Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women will suffer a tremendous loss. I will suffer. My family will suffer. Her current Chaplain and the staff at Fluvanna will suffer. The women incarcerated there will suffer. And, I think, collectively as a people we will suffer.
Allowing a borderline mentally retarded woman to die for her part as a dupe in a crime to which the mastermind and his buddy were both given life in prison will be yet another tragedy for the history books. In 1912, the last woman to be executed was just 17. An African-American girl. I wonder if she got a fair shake in 1912 – my guess is she did not – and far from it. I wonder if Teresa situation is any better almost a hundred years later.
http://www.saveteresalewis.org/index.html to find out more, see videos of me sharing about my relationship with Teresa or sign a petition.
I encourage you all to visit the website Lynn shared and read the facts for yourself. Do you believe Teresa Lewis deserves to die? If not, how do you think Christians should respond?