Life After Death

Andre Lewis was eight hours from being executed, until the courts realized they had made a big mistake

In 1994, law professor Deborah Denno of Fordham University in New York wrote an article for the American Judicial Criminal Law journal in which she used Peck's research to establish a "nexus between Lewis' disadvantaged background and his lack of culpability at the time he committed the crime." She concluded that "Lewis' background and cognitive defects, in addition to his intoxicated condition at the time of the crime, contributed to the kind of 'damaged personality' required by the Texas court...so that the defendant in that cause could excuse his criminal behavior."

Ellis would also find clinical and forensic psychologist Mark Cunningham to study Lewis' life story--full, Cunningham would later write, of "sequential emotional damage," the kind that keeps a child from ever having any shot of growing into an adult worth anything.

Finally, in late November 2001, Ellis was allowed to present to U.S. Magistrate William Sanderson three days of testimony no one had ever been allowed to hear. Family members paraded to the witness stand to recount their stories of Odell's abuse and violence and "evil behavior." Andre's old coaches at Pinkston showed up to talk about what a good kid he'd been and about how much trouble he had learning the simplest task. "We would have to repeatedly go over, over, over, over, over the same offensive plays," said Coach James King. And Cunningham and Peck showed up to repeat their findings that the abuse Lewis suffered is "the most severe of any type I have come across," as Peck told Sanderson.

Andre Lewis, top, is off Death Row now, trying to adjust to life without a Grim Reaper over his shoulder. His father, Odell, bottom left, died in 1994 after years of abusing his children. Ruth Sims, bottom right, hasn't spoken with Andre in three years.
Andre Lewis, top, is off Death Row now, trying to adjust to life without a Grim Reaper over his shoulder. His father, Odell, bottom left, died in 1994 after years of abusing his children. Ruth Sims, bottom right, hasn't spoken with Andre in three years.
San Francisco-based attorney Richard Ellis, the man who saved Andre Lewis
James Sanders
San Francisco-based attorney Richard Ellis, the man who saved Andre Lewis

Lewis never wanted that hearing, not because he wanted to stay on Death Row, but because he didn't want to relive those memories. He had stopped having those dreams. Enough already. Maybe they should have killed him. Woulda been easier to take.

"I tried to ignore a lot of things and not think about the abuse," he says now. "I can't change it, and I don't want to think about it. I didn't want to go down that path again, but Richard was trying to save my life, so I was willing to go through it. Sitting in the courtroom for that hearing was a struggle, but necessary. I prepared myself for it. I wasn't sad for myself. I was sad for my family, having to go through it again."

That was the last time Andre Lewis saw his family--the last time they had a chance to hug him, to tell him they loved him. What saved Lewis ultimately destroyed a family. Before the hearing, Aunt Ruth says, Lewis would write all the time. Afterward, they didn't hear from him at all, not even when the 5th Circuit Court vacated his death sentence on December 23 of last year.

"You don't like to tell stories about kids' parents with them right there," Ruth Sims says. "It was like we were ganging up on him. But we lived this, too. Every time you start to talk you'd break down, because you'd bring it up from memory. I told them we didn't have no reason to lie. Those kids went through hell. We can't change that. That's what happened. But after the hearing he would never write."

His grandmother Lula Mae Berry says she didn't even know Lewis had been taken off Death Row and that he was now in Wichita Falls. His sister Lisa says she, too, had no idea. "My grandmother always said the truth will set you free, and we told the truth," she says of that November 2001 hearing. "I guess Andre didn't like that."

From the moment he took the case, Ellis believed that Lewis deserved the fair trial he never received in Dallas County, deserved to be considered as more than a figure on a videotape doing a bad thing to a good kid. Had Ellis lost this case, and this client, he says he would have quit practicing law.

"I witnessed two executions of two of my clients, and I couldn't have gone through that again," he says. "It's too draining. It's awful. You can't imagine what it's like to see someone you know and like as a friend sit there on a gurney and be killed. It's an awful thing. I still remember...a lot...about the first ones I saw." His voice cracks. "It was very hard. I was ready to give it up. I was not going to continue had he been executed. I don't even like to talk about it. It's just too, too traumatic. Getting Andre off Death Row did give me hope in the sense that I am still doing it. And I hope maybe it will give other people hope."

The Dallas County District Attorney's Office could have tried Lewis again, but the district attorney concluded it wasn't worth the cost and time, and in May Lewis was given life in prison, with the possibility of parole. He has been a model prisoner. Maybe he will get out one day. Maybe he'll do something with his life after all, now that he has one at long last.

"Today it ain't even fully hit me yet," Lewis says, smiling for the first time at the end of an hour-long interview. "I realize I am off Death Row and what's expected of me and what I have to do. I know I came within 24 hours of being executed, and now I have a life. It's strange. Guys say, 'You're lucky,' and maybe I am. For so long I prepared myself to die. Now I have to prepare myself how to live."

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