By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
McKay would survive his gunshot wound for 10 days, but after several surgeries, his parents told the doctors at Parkland Memorial Hospital to turn off the equipment keeping their son alive. Matt McKay was pronounced dead at 3:07 a.m. December 9, 1985.
Less than eight years later, Andre Lewis had consumed his last meal and been guided to a cell to await his escort, a Grim Reaper dressed as a Texas Department of Criminal Justice officer. He wondered if he'd see his family one last time and what awaited him "on the other side."
He was damned near in the ground when, at nearly the last moment, U.S. District Judge Joe Fish granted Lewis a stay of execution--and, as it turned out, released him from Death Row altogether.
Two days before Christmas last year, Lewis awoke from his nightmare. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated his death sentence--not because Lewis was innocent, but because during the penalty phase of his original trial in 1987, his court-appointed attorneys didn't present a single shred of evidence that could have softened the jury's deathblow.
They did not tell the jury that Lewis, picked on at Pinkston High School for his shabby, ill-fitting clothes and for being unable to understand anything other than a football coach's commands, was a victim of ghastly abuse--had been since he was a child, since he was old enough to remember anything. They did not utter a word about his life story, which, in court documents and the testimony of family members and medical professionals, reads like the screenplay of a horror movie, filled with stabbings and shootings, sexual abuse and mutilations. They did not mention his father, Odell, a junkie and convicted felon who threatened his own children with guns and knives and put out his cigarettes on their skin. They did not mention his mother, Betty Mae, who used drugs and drank heavily during her five pregnancies. They did not mention how the Lewis family lived in the George Loving Housing Project in West Dallas, near the infamous RSR lead smelter plant that poisoned the playground on which Andre and his sisters and brothers played as children.
So the jury did what it believed just and necessary: It sent a man portrayed by prosecutors as dangerous and habitually violent to die, never knowing that he, like so many men on Death Row, was doomed long before he and McKay crossed paths in that convenience store.
It took several attorneys, including a lawyer living in San Francisco, 11 years to convince the courts that Lewis did not have a fair trial. In that time, the federal courts intervened, and the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling in another case that would directly impact Lewis'. Lewis' attorney persuaded the courts to hear the terrifying testimony the jury did not in 1987. Family members and psychiatrists paraded into court, each bearing their own horror stories. Lewis even became something of a poster boy for legal experts trying to link lead poisoning to mental deficiency and criminal behavior. And in that time, Lewis and his lawyer hoped he wouldn't be executed, but never had the temerity to believe his life would actually be spared.
"Being in prison for a long time will change anyone, for good or worse," Lewis says. "For me, it was for the good. When I first got here, I was young, angry, scared. I didn't have a sense of direction. All I did was react. Then one day I saw the older guys smiling, getting along. One day I said, 'I want that kind of peace.' I have always hoped, but I tried not to put all my hope into one basket. I tried to live day to day, and whatever happened, happened."
On November 15, the Supreme Court vacated the death sentence of LaRoyce Lathair Smith, sentenced to die for pistol-whipping, shooting and stabbing with a butcher knife a 19-year-old female manager of a local Taco Bell in January 1991. Smith's and Lewis' stories are almost identical: They're of below-average IQ and were lucky to have even survived ghastly childhoods. Seven of the justices believed Smith shouldn't die; only two, conservatives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, voted otherwise. Five months earlier, the court ruled the same way for Robert Tennard, insisting that if the jury had known about their life stories, perhaps they would have imposed "a sentence more lenient than death." And earlier this year, they took Delma Banks off Death Row, claiming he, too, didn't get a fair trial.
And so, in a state once known for killing its convicts with numbing regularity, there is now a bit of hope that one death need not guarantee another. Perhaps that will change as George W. Bush begins to reshape the Supreme Court in his image. After all, when he was governor of Texas, 152 people were executed while he opposed setting up a single legal roadblock that might have slowed their path to the death chamber.