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

Because of Alan Wright's diligence, Erica Sheppard was given the "competent counsel" she was entitled to under the law. Perhaps none of the mitigating factors that he found would have made a difference at her trial; the jury might have sentenced her to death anyway. Wright's point is that Sheppard had every right for that jury to hear those facts and decide for themselves, but she was deprived of that right by the bumbling incompetence of her trial counsel.

Whether the Court of Criminal Appeals agrees with him is still an open question.

Though Sheppard has lived on death row for three years, circumstances have not yet taken a visible toll on her: At 24, her pecan-brown skin is smooth, her oval eyes eager, her smile amazingly naive -- not the look you'd expect from a cold-blooded killer.

To a visitor separated by iron mesh and an expansive glass partition, she comes across as unthreatening; she giggles nervously like a schoolgirl being asked a hard question in class. She can explain away the horrific crime of which she was convicted -- perhaps a little too easily. She maintains she was "in the wrong place at the wrong time," almost as though she were "taken hostage" and just got "caught up in a situation."

Sheppard has faith in her attorney, Alan Wright, but the bulk of her conversation deals with her relationship to God. "That's where my faith resides, because even in the end, He has the last say-so."

Although Sheppard is currently in solitary confinement (by choice), it becomes obvious to those who visit that she will not allow her spirit to be caged. That determination is reinforced every time she walks past the recreation room on death row and notices the inmates' tribute to the first woman executed in the state since before the Civil War. The memorial is a black-and-white photo of Karla Faye Tucker, her smiling face forcing itself into the simple room above a poster that reads: "When you live in an eight-by-eight-foot cell, the only thing that's free to wander is your mind."

Muriel L. Sims is a staff writer at the Dallas Observer.

Editor's note: Please see the Letters column in this issue for a letter from attorney James Keegan.

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