By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Lewis survived because his legal battle was taken out of the hands of Texas. Instead it was waged in the federal courts, which are historically friendlier to the condemned.
And it was the U.S. Supreme Court that in June 2003 lifted the death sentence of a borderline retarded Maryland man named Kevin Wiggins, convicted of killing an elderly woman for whom he worked as a handyman. The court ruled that the jury that sentenced Wiggins to die might have ruled differently had it heard about how he was starved, beaten and repeatedly raped as a child and how his mother used to punish her young son by burning his hands on a stove.
"The Wiggins case did not break new ground," says Robin Maher, director of the American Bar Association Death Penalty Representation Project. "It was reaffirming a well-established position about mitigating evidence. It served as an important reminder that this was essential evidence in death penalty cases. It put an exclamation mark behind the importance of developing and putting mitigating evidence in front of a jury before sentencing. That evidence is usually painful, too, facts nobody wants to admit to, and it's the same story in case after case. As compelling as the facts were in Wiggins, his story was not unusual. Many, many clients are executed without evidence presented that was far more compelling."
Lewis and dozens like him waiting to die in Texas and elsewhere do not have the market cornered on tragic, grisly childhood tales. They're but tiny chapters in thick books spread out over hundreds of volumes. Lewis isn't special. He just survived long enough for someone to tell his story.
He would have disappeared down the well long ago had it not been for three attorneys who believed Lewis had been poorly represented during his original trial and who believed he did not mean to kill McKay and did not deserve to die for pulling the trigger that awful afternoon.
It was almost 12 years ago this week that two of those lawyers, Sandra Babcock and Elizabeth Cohen, first contacted the Dallas Observerabout Lewis. They worked for the Texas Resource Center back then, a federally funded group of attorneys and investigators who made sure every inmate had his or her right to a federal appeals process after a death sentence was imposed. (The Resource Center has become a thing of the past; in September 1995 the federal government cut off funds for resource centers around the country.)
To them, Lewis was a special case and not so special at all, meaning they wanted to save his life, absolutely, but also to use his case to reveal how broken the system had become in sentencing to death a man who never had a chance at any kind of normal, decent life. Babcock and Cohen, and one of the TRC's investigators, spent nearly two months introducing me to Lewis' family members--the aunt and grandmother who tried to raise and rescue him, the sisters who had their own minor run-ins with the law, and the junkie father who tortured his children so often and so brutally that they came to believe that his killing them would have been the kindest thing their dad could have done.
Odell Lewis, who spent time in Louisiana's infamous Angola Penitentiary for breaking into a drugstore and had his own FBI file, beat his kids with firewood, threatened them with the pistol he kept in his belt and cut them with the knife he always had on him. He tore their clothes to shreds, kicked his daughter Tammy so hard when she was 11 she had to have an emergency hysterectomy and tried to rape her when she was 14. When Andre was 6, Odell threw him down a flight of stairs, and the boy suffered massive head injuries; a few years later, Odell punched him in the face with such force Andre's teeth busted through his lips.
Odell would also put out his cigarettes on the kids' arms and force them to pull down their pants so he could whip their genitals with extension cords. Andre's aunt Ruth Ann Sims and Tammy always believed he was into black magic: They recalled the nights when he would sleep in a cemetery and told of how he would "splash blood on the walls and holler voodoo." A few weeks ago, Sims said Odell was "one of the evilest things."
Odell's wife, Betty Mae, was no better. She was a pill-popping drunk, as violent as her old man, whom she met and married when they were living in Shreveport, Louisiana, in the late 1960s. In front of the kids, Odell would put a cooking pot over Betty Mae's head and beat the pot till she passed out. In the summer of 1969, Odell shot her in the leg and arm with a .22-caliber pistol after a fight at a car wash. He used to beat her with baseball bats; he used to stab her, too. Years later, after the family moved from Shreveport to the West Dallas housing projects, Betty Mae slashed Odell with a butcher knife, spilling his blood and guts all over the floor, then told Andre to call an ambulance. Andre would dream about the incident for years, even after he'd been confined to Death Row. She, too, would spend time in prison and finally died in 1991, at the age of 47, of a massive heart attack.