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

In May 1993, their nine-month-old daughter was in the hospital suffering from milk intolerance, says Sheppard. By the baby's side for days, Sheppard left only to go home and change clothes. On May 24, Bryant showed up at the hospital and, according to Sheppard, demanded that she come home and have sex with him. When she refused, he attacked her, punching her in the eye and beating her so severely she lost consciousness.

Two days later, the otherwise submissive Sheppard found temporary shelter for her and her baby at the Matagorda County Women's Crisis Center. She knew that Bryant was waiting for her at her grandmother's house where they lived together, and was terrified he would make good on his threats to kill her. Weeks later, she decided that she and her baby would be safer in Houston, living with her brother Jonathan. Her two other children would be fine with her mother and grandmother.

But it was here that she met James Dickerson, her brother's unemployed lover and the man who would change her life forever. Convicted of capital murder in the Meagher slaying, Dickerson is now on death row -- and dying of AIDS.

None of the facts about Sheppard's past, which were clearly relevant to the kinds of social background and character issues considered during the sentencing phase of a death-penalty trial, were ever heard by a jury. Neither her mother, grandmother, brother nor the head of the women's shelter were ever called to corroborate her story, although they were willing to do so.

Also known before the trial and detailed in investigator Castillo's report was the fact that Sheppard claimed she had participated in the murder while under duress. Says attorney Brown, "I was aware that prior to and during the trial that Erica Sheppard claimed to have been under duress and in fear for her and her infant child's lives while in the company of James Dickerson."

Although her confession omits any facts constituting duress, and fails to mention that her baby was with her at the time of the murder, P.I. Castillo's report reflects Sheppard's claim. "Erica stated that before going inside the apartment, James [Dickerson] grabbed her and threatened her verbally a second time, by saying, 'If you don't go in, I'll kill you and the baby.' " Even after the murder, claims Sheppard, Dickerson continued to threaten her and the baby, keeping her daughter with him as they made their getaway. "Erica stated that on the road to Bay City, James kept the knife on her and told her he would slit her throat if she attempted to escape."

Attorney Brown's own notes of his initial jailhouse meeting with Sheppard reflect Sheppard's contention that she participated in the murder because she was deathly afraid not to. "Inexplicably," argues the habeas petition, "even though duress was the only available defense, trial counsel presented none of this evidence to the jury."

Wright later learned that one of the most damning details in the punishment phase -- the testimony of Paula Allen accusing Sheppard of being involved in another violent crime -- had gone virtually unchallenged by her lawyers. Allen, Jerry Bryant's ex-wife, testified that in November 1991, Sheppard had driven the getaway car while Bryant shot her friend Wayland Griggs. But the attempted murder case was dropped after Allen later signed an affidavit swearing she had lied to the police and had not seen either Sheppard or Bryant on the night of the shooting. In the capital case, attorney Brown was in possession of this affidavit, but neglected to bring it to the jury's attention. As a result, his cross-examination of Allen was largely ineffective. And what better evidence could the prosecutor have of proving the defendant's propensity toward future dangerousness than showing she had tried to kill in the past?

Including the claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, Wright alleged 40 grounds of error in Sheppard's habeas petition, which, when completed on the day it was due, was 142 pages long. To produce this document, Wright virtually abandoned his practice for two months, relying on other lawyers in his firm to pick up the slack. He and his defense team worked days, nights and weekends, spending over 600 hours for which he otherwise could have billed $285 each. Haynes and Boone paid more than $10,000 out of its own pocket for investigative fees; the firm even hired a psychologist who would testify, if allowed, that Erica Sheppard did not pose a future danger to society.

And what if Wright were to be successful in his petition? There would still be an evidentiary hearing at the trial level, and possibly further appeals at the state and federal levels. When asked if he could have done all this for $15,000, the fee cap awarded lawyers appointed by the appeals court, he could barely manage a laugh.

"The irony is that these cases end up costing so much during habeas because the state is willing to spend so little on the front end," he says. "If they were willing to spend realistically what it would take for first-rate representation at the first trial, you wouldn't have as many claims of ineffective assistance."

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