Of Life and Death

While Erica Sheppard sits on death row, penniless and convicted of a gruesome Houston murder, her cadre of elite Dallas lawyers is trying to prove that the justice system has gone fatally awry

Erica Sheppard had decided she wanted to die.
For three years, she had been on death row, convicted of the murder of Marilyn Sage Meagher, a Houston real estate agent and mother of two. Although Sheppard would later claim that she didn't receive a fair trial, she confessed to her part in the slaying, to the grisly details that portrayed her as an all-too-willing accomplice to a robbery that had spun violently out of control. In the end, Meagher was murdered -- stabbed, smothered and bludgeoned. Random violence: That's the way the jurors saw it. They said Sheppard had acted deliberately, and branded her a continuing danger to society. They demanded by their verdict that she pay with her life.

Appeals would follow the sentence, first directly to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which affirmed her conviction; then collaterally, with a habeas corpus petition. The procedure governing habeas corpus, once known as the "great writ of liberty," had recently been amended by the Texas Legislature and the U.S. Congress, targeted by capital-punishment advocates and crime-busting politicos bent on ensuring that people who are sentenced to death actually die.

But when Sheppard met with Houston attorney James Keegan, who had been appointed by the appeals court to handle her writ, lawyer and client didn't hit it off. Sheppard claims he told her she didn't have a case; there was little hope that a higher court might overturn her conviction. Keegan, however, adamantly denies he discouraged his client and contends that correspondence in Sheppard's sworn affidavit belies her current claims about him.

After their second meeting, Sheppard claims she wrote a letter to the appeals court requesting another attorney but was never given one. Growing hopeless about her case, she drew strength from the six other women on Mountain View Unit's death row in Gatesville, particularly Karla Faye Tucker, the born-again Christian whose jailhouse conversion caused an odd alignment of televangelists and death-penalty opponents to plead unsuccessfully for clemency from Governor Bush. Before her execution last February, Tucker would pray with Sheppard and counsel with her, helping Sheppard make peace with herself, her family, her God.

On November 7, 1997, Sheppard again wrote a letter to the appellate court, this time asking that "my appeal immediately be stopped and my execution date be carried out as promptly as possible." Complying with her wishes, the trial court scheduled her execution date: April 20, 1998.

Now that the clock was ticking, her case grabbed the attention of Amnesty International and others fundamentally opposed to capital punishment. Bianca Jagger wrote her a letter, urging her to reconsider her decision, Sheppard's mother, Madelyn McNeil, wrote the Reverend Jesse Jackson, pleading for his assistance in persuading her daughter to once again fight for her life.

Sheppard remained unmoved by these efforts, believing her case was hopeless, that it was God's doing that led her to waive her appeal. She would only change her mind, she told her mother, if she received some other sign, some miracle indicating that God wanted her to live. Only weeks before her execution date, Jackson agreed to visit Sheppard in prison. Apparently this was all the miracle she needed; she instructed her attorney to reinstitute her appeal.

On April 8, Sheppard was brought into the visitors' area, where she greeted her celebrated guest. "Reverend Jackson came down and he gave me such spiritual encouragement," says Sheppard. "He just got involved."

By the day's end, Jackson had asked Houston attorney David Marshall, who serves as counsel for Amnesty International, to find a replacement for Keegan. Marshall, in turn, contacted Dallas civil attorney Alan Wright, a 14-year veteran of the silk-stocking law firm Haynes and Boone, LLP. But Wright had no idea that by volunteering his services and those of seven other lawyers in his firm, he had stepped deeply into a legal quagmire that has defined the debate over habeas corpus in death-penalty cases. That debate pits the Texas Legislature against the state's judiciary and the judiciary against the criminal bar. In 1995, the Legislature enacted a law to shorten the delay between sentence and execution: Time limits were tightened; filing deadlines were to be adhered to rigidly. In the interest of speedier justice, the new law also mandated that the appeals court appoint "competent counsel" to represent indigent inmates.

But legislators failed to define what they meant by "competent counsel," or to appropriate enough funds for the judiciary to efficiently manage the procedure. The Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association accused the appellate court of appointing unqualified, uncaring attorneys and the Legislature of not adequately funding the compensation of habeas attorneys. It advised its own members not to volunteer to handle habeas appeals, seeing their participation as simply expediting the "killing of their clients," as one local attorney puts it.

With Texas leading the nation as the state that has executed the most people since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976, there are those who believe that in our zeal to expedite justice, we have gone too far. They fear the recent changes to the writ system will deny due process and increase the likelihood that innocent people will die. "If the punishment is going to be extremely harsh," says Houston attorney Cynthia Orr, chairman of TCDLA's death-penalty committee, "then the procedure that allows it to be imposed has to be especially accurate and careful, and that costs money."

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