By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The trial court had appointed private investigator John Castillo to aid Brown in the pre-trial investigation, and Brown admits that he was the only one of Sheppard's attorneys who was privy to Castillo's findings. Much of Castillo's 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 that Brown should have done, such as contacting dozens of witnesses--friends, family, 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 babysitter'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. "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 also had 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 man who forced her to perform oral sex at knifepoint; once during a party at a friend's house. A second pregnancy from 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 10th 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 10 years her senior, who fathered her third child, a girl, and stayed around long enough to make her life miserable. By Sheppard's 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.
In May 1993, their 9-month-old daughter was in the hospital suffering from milk intolerance, says Sheppard. By her 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 herself 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 stay with her mother and grandmother.
But it was here that she met James Dickerson, her brother's unemployed lover, and the man would change her life forever.