Deathtrap

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

Lawmakers counter that they never intended the court to hire shysters. Neither do they expect prisoners convicted of a capital offense to spend the remainder of their lives on death row filing multiple appeals. And ask any attorney if he's making enough money, they say, and he'll always say no.

But the problem was complicated again in 1995, when the Republican-controlled Congress cut funds for the Texas Resource Center, and a major source for the training of "competent attorneys" in habeas cases was lost. A crisis now looms as the courts scramble to find those attorneys willing and able to represent death-row inmates.

Into this void came Alan Wright, a lawyer whose job as a habeas attorney would be to tear down the work of every lawyer who came before him, discover what, if any, evidence had not been introduced at trial, and find some way to save his client's life. Wright was a literal godsend as far as Erica Sheppard was concerned. "[Jackson] got me new legal representation. It was a miracle. It was a miracle from God."

Regrettably, she wasn't privy to the same kind of divine guidance on June 30, 1993, when she became an accomplice to the savage robbery and murder of Marilyn Sage Meagher.

In large part, it was Erica Sheppard's own words that condemned her to death. In her confession, which was introduced at trial on February 28, 1995, she relates how at 19, she and her 10-month-old child had been living with her brother Jonathan when she met James Dickerson, her brother's blue-eyed roommate and lover.

On the evening of June 29, 1993, Sheppard, Dickerson, and another friend, Korey Jordan, were sitting around their Houston apartment when Dickerson popped off that he needed some money and was willing to "jack some cars and some people" to get it. Dickerson enlisted Sheppard's help the next afternoon, and together, they began to scout out victims, spotting a black Mazda parked with its trunk open. A woman was apparently unloading the car and had her apartment open as well. "We had decided that we would go into the apartment and rob whoever was in the apartment and steal the Mazda," Sheppard confesses.

She admits she was carrying a small kitchen knife; she was the first to enter, with Dickerson close behind. Once inside, their movement startled the woman. "Who's there, who's there?" she asked, as her two assailants jumped her, knocking her to the hallway floor. Dickerson held her down, but the woman kept screaming. Sheppard handed him the knife, and Dickerson shouted that he would slit her throat if the woman didn't shut up.

"Don't hurt me, don't hurt me!" the woman continued to yell. "I have two kids."

"Give me your car keys," demanded Sheppard.
For some reason, the woman doubted her. "My keys, you're crazy."
Dickerson raised the knife to her throat, showing he meant business.

"I'll give you anything. Don't hurt me. I have a little money; take my money." She reached into her pocket as best she could, taking out money and throwing it on the floor. But she wouldn't stop yelling, so Dickerson forced her on her back and tried to cut her throat. Only the knife wasn't sharp enough.

Sheppard ran to the kitchen and pulled out a butcher knife from one of the drawers, then ran back to Dickerson and handed it to him. Next, she went into the woman's bedroom, rummaging through her things, finding some money and car keys. Dickerson called out for Sheppard, and she returned, only to find blood gushing from the woman's throat. She was still breathing, and Dickerson told Sheppard to hold the woman down, which she did, as he reached for a plastic bag, placed it over the woman's face, and tried to suffocate her. While the woman was still gasping for air, Dickerson wrapped a bedsheet around her, then grabbed a heavy statue off of a glass table and smashed it over her head.

The assistant medical examiner would later testify that the death of Marilyn Meagher was caused by a five-and-a-half-inch deep stab wound. The knife not only severed the jugular vein, but was delivered with such force that it remained lodged in the vertebrae. This witness opined that the blow was so powerful, it could possibly have been caused by two people. A fingerprint expert also testified that Sheppard's bloody handprint was found at the scene of the crime; only the blood wasn't Sheppard's, it was the victim's.

The prosecution's case was further bolstered by the testimony of Korey Jordan, who claimed that while he was in the apartment with Sheppard and Dickerson the night before, the pair had planned the robbery and discussed their willingness to kill, if necessary.

Sheppard was represented at trial by her court-appointed lawyer, Charles Brown, who had never before been lead counsel on a death-penalty case. The two other lawyers appointed to assist him had even less experience than he did. Brown barely put on a defense, and the jury had little trouble finding his client guilty of capital murder.

Under Texas law, for a person to be sentenced to death, the jury, in the punishment phase of the trial, must answer "yes" to three questions: Did the defendant act deliberately? Was the defendant's conduct unreasonable in response to any provocation offered by the deceased? Was there a probability that the defendant would commit future acts of violence that would pose a continuing threat to society? If the jury answers "no" to any one of these questions, the defendant will be sentenced to life in prison. Any factor that might mitigate the punishment from death to life is admissible at this point in the trial.

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