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

Wright's first task was to read and study Sheppard's trial record. Judge Harper's 185th District Court had appointed three lawyers to try her case. But after Wright read the transcript, he says, it became painfully apparent that her lead attorney, Charles Brown, had done virtually nothing to prepare himself for Sheppard's trial. Wright was appalled. "It made me angry," he says, "because I don't think the trial was fair. And it wasn't fair because the attorneys didn't make an effort to make it fair."

Wright intended to file several claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel; surprisingly, he was helped in those claims by an affidavit he obtained from the trial counsel himself. In his sworn statement, Brown corroborates how little he prepared for Sheppard's capital case. He lists ten possible witnesses that he did not interview before the trial. Erica Sheppard, he says, also provided him with a list of 12 other witnesses who would testify in the punishment phase on her behalf; he only interviewed two of them. Instead, Brown claims, he relied on the assistance of his co-counsel to handle the investigation of all mitigating evidence in the sentencing phase, even though "I did not consider attorney Bolden qualified to sit as second chair." And attorney Hazel Bolden claims by her affidavit that Brown -- whom she did not consider qualified to sit as lead counsel -- "did not assign her any responsibility for the investigation of the case."

The trial court had appointed private investigator John Castillo to aid Brown in the investigation of the case, and Brown admits that he was the only one of Sheppard's attorneys who was privy to the results of Castillo's investigation. Much of Castillo's pretrial report includes mitigating evidence about Sheppard's background and character that could have been used to humanize her during the sentencing phase, but wasn't. Brown acknowledges that it was a mistake not to allow Sheppard the opportunity to testify in her own defense. He did not return phone calls requesting an interview for this story.

Only by doing the work Brown should have done -- contacting dozens of witnesses, including friends, family and police officers -- were Wright and his investigative team able to patch together the story of Sheppard's life that should have been presented to the jury. If Sheppard had been called as a witness, according to the habeas petition, she would have testified to the following:

Erica Yvonne Sheppard grew up hard, raised in Bay City just outside of Houston by an abusive mother who moved her constantly between homes and lovers. As a young child, she was sexually assaulted and forced to perform oral sex on a baby sitter's boyfriend who threatened to kill her mother if Erica told anyone. "I can only remember him from here down," she says, placing her hand level with her chest. "I can't remember his face."

Sheppard says she tried to tell her mother what the man had done to her. "She didn't believe me," she says, "and at three, that's when the wall went up, and I said, 'I'll never tell whatever bad happens to me again. I'll just deal with it.' "

Her mother, who often left Sheppard and her brother in the care of their grandmother, would beat her so hard that her grandmother had to intervene. "Growing up, we really didn't have a mother/daughter relationship," says Sheppard. Her mother did have a series of lesbian lovers who were also abusive to Sheppard. Although she attended church regularly and relied heavily on her faith, Sheppard became pregnant at 13, and her mother, upon hearing the news, "beat her half to death." She then had her first abortion.

As a teenager, Sheppard was sexually assaulted twice, once by a Hispanic man who forced her to perform oral sex at knifepoint; once during a party at a friend's house. A second pregnancy, by a man she hardly knew, resulted in the birth of a son; the father never had a relationship with the child and never paid child support. Erica dropped out of high school in the tenth grade and made herself virtually unemployable; she got pregnant again, and the birth of a second child, another son, wasn't even acknowledged by the father, who denied paternity. Sheppard's mother continued to be physically abusive to her, once trying to strangle her with a phone cord.

"Children need to feel loved. They need to feel protected," says Sheppard. But in her mother's home, Sheppard didn't find the care and protection she craved. "If they're not getting that at home," she says, "they're going to get it from somewhere.... They're going to find something to fill that hole that they feel like is empty.

"I was searching for love," she says. "So, you go out and you find it in sexual relationships, with whoever says, 'Hey, you're pretty' ... You know, if a person has real low self-esteem, they're going to go for that."

In 1991, Sheppard met Jerry Bryant Jr., a Bay City auto mechanic more than ten years her senior, who fathered her third child, a girl, and stayed around long enough to make her life miserable. By her account, Bryant was overly possessive and jealous, outraged when she wanted to spend time even with her own children. He would beat her mercilessly, watching Sheppard cower as he held a knife to her throat or stuck a .45 revolver in her face, threatening to kill her if she ever tried to leave him. Several times she called the police, even got a protective order keeping him away from her, but she would always relent and let him back into her life.

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