Ben Tribbett was not a witness to Teresa Lewis’s execution last Thursday, but this did not stop him from tweeting a minute-by-minute narrative of the event as it took place. The execution — which occurred in Virginia’s death chamber — reached its end a few minutes after 9 p.m., with the first news outlet confirming her death around 9:15. But Tribbett, a Virginia-based political blogger, began his live updates as Lewis was walked into the death chamber.
“Virginia Execution Protocol: 8:50: The condemned inmate is led in restraints to the execution chamber where she is seated on the execution gurney, then placed on her back,” he tweeted. “Guards then strap the inmate down at various points.”
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The first three words of that initial tweet shed light into how Tribbett knew the play-by-play of the night despite not being present. The blogger told me via phone that he had come across an execution protocol published on the website of a northern Virginia daily newspaper. It had been posted a few years ago because of a highly-publicized execution of a prisoner who had once lived in the county where the newspaper is based. Because executions carried out by the government are a closely-watched, delicate affair, they are carried out in a carefully-timed, rehearsed way. The prison guards often run through a mock execution beforehand and they leave little room for error. This is why Tribbett is fairly certain that the protocol from an execution that took place years before matched the Thursday execution exactly.
I asked Tribbett why he was so interested in this execution.
“It was a big case to begin with,” he replied. “She was a female. She was not the trigger man in the crime. It got national attention for that. The actual killers got life in prison rather than the death penalty. She was mentally retarded, but one point above where the Supreme Court cuts off execution for the mentally retarded.”
Under US law, the government cannot execute a person with a an IQ lower than 70, and Lewis had an overall IQ of 72; many medical professionals argued this was well within the margin of error when they wrote letters to Virginia Bob McDonnell asking him to stay the execution in favor of life imprisonment. The 41-year-old inmate had been found guilty of plotting to kill her husband and stepson with the motive of receiving life insurance policy money after their deaths. To do this, she enlisted the help of two men who were identified as the actual shooters during trials. Both were sentenced to life in prison (one later committed suicide) while Lewis was condemned to death. Lewis was the first woman executed in Virginia in almost 100 years and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cited it recently when claiming Western media has a double standard when it comes to covering Iranian executions.
Over the course of the night, Tribbett said, his tweets were retweeted more than 1,000 times and he received over 100 new followers. “A lot of the retweets came from Virginia [Twitter users] and from people following this who were outraged by the case. A bunch of my followers online were shocked. I got a lot of @ replies saying, ‘are you really live tweeting the execution?'”
“Virginia Execution Protocol Approx. 9:11,” Tribbett’s last live-tweet reads. “The curtain is closed again and a physician examines the body and pronounces death.” During this examination, the physician was likely unaware that thousands of Twitter users were peering over his shoulder, contemplating what it means to condemn another human being to die.