Life After Death

Andre Anthony Lewis used to dream about his death. He thought of it so often it became almost like the memory of something that hadn't yet happened. In this dream, Lewis sits in a prison cell, a man comes to fetch him, and together they walk down a long, silent corridor that leads to a small white room in which a cold metal gurney sits in the middle of the floor. Lewis climbs on that table, and the man straps him to it. Then he jabs a needle into Lewis' enormous arm and fills his body with a combination of muscle relaxants and surgical anesthetics, which will plunge him into a deep sleep from which the son of Odell and Betty Mae Lewis will never awaken.

Lewis does not have that dream anymore. Death, which used to loiter outside his cell door like an impatient old friend, has moved on to claim some other poor soul. For the first time in a long time, Andre Anthony Lewis does not have the precise date of his demise penciled on some executioner's calendar. Today he knows there will be a tomorrow and a day after--a day when he might learn a skill he could use in the real world, should he ever be given the chance to walk out of prison.

"And hopefully one day I can talk to youngsters heading down the wrong way and explain what I've been through and detour them," Lewis says now, his 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame squeezed into a tiny cell at the Allred Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, located just outside Wichita Falls in Iowa Park. The voice, soft and reflective, does not match the vision of this hulk clad in a prisoner's white jumpsuit. Some of the guards have taken to calling Lewis "The Green Mile," because he reminds them of the gentle giant from that movie.

Soon he will begin taking vocational classes, perhaps something to do with bricklaying or woodwork, something to make him useful in a world that once regarded him as useless. He is slowly adjusting to life off Death Row. He now has a cellmate, takes his meals outside his cell and watches television or plays checkers in a communal break room with other inmates. During his 16 years in the Ellis Unit and then the Polunsky Unit, he was isolated, confined to his cell for 23 hours a day. When a guard came to fetch him, Lewis was always sure it was to tell him that today was the day he was going to die. Now, someone comes to retrieve him three times a day for three-hour stretches in the yard or the TV room. Life is better now, because at least it's a life.

"At least now I have something to look forward to--my freedom," he says. "And I want to help others from heading down the wrong road." Few would make better tour guides than Lewis. He knows the path by heart.

On February 18, 1993, Lewis was supposed to die, and it was almost certain he would. His attorneys had little hope; Lewis, none at all. Six years after a Dallas County jury had sentenced him to die, Lewis was a mere eight hours from becoming the 55th life taken by the state since 1973, when a revision to the Texas Penal Code allowed for executions to resume in the state--after the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled them unconstitutional just one year earlier.

Lewis, now 38, had been convicted of capital murder for killing a 17-year-old named Matt McKay during the botched November 20, 1985, hold-up of a Carrollton convenience store. Of his guilt, there is no doubt: The crime, set up by Lewis' uncle, had been captured on black-and-white surveillance video. Lewis had been in trouble before for stealing cars and breaking into buildings, and in 1985 he was sentenced to seven years' probation for burglary and car robbery. The shooting, though, was the only time he'd done anything violent. Problem was, it doesn't get much more violent than killing a kid.

Lewis, then 19, and his half-brother Tommie Ronnie Berry, carrying loaded guns their uncle had given them, walked into the PDQ Texaco Food Mart on Stemmons Freeway pretending to be customers. Berry asked for a restroom key; Lewis, a pack of cigarettes. The clerk asked if they wanted anything else. Yeah, Lewis told her. All the money in the drawer. "Get on the floor, bitch," he ordered, in monotone voice flattened by cocaine and booze. Lewis also wanted what was in the safe, but the clerk said she didn't know how to open it. "You can open the safe, or you're going to be the killed one!"

Berry came over to help his half-brother, but they fumbled around so long that customers, including two men in their late teens, began filing into the store. The two men, Dave Masters and Matt McKay, had come from Houston and were heading home to Oklahoma City. Lewis pretended to be a clerk, but in his addled state he couldn't maintain the ruse for long. Brandishing the gun, he ordered the customers to hit the ground, and all complied save for McKay, who appears on the videotape to be oblivious to the commotion around him. Lewis shouted at McKay, then finally lost his temper and pulled the trigger, firing a single bullet into his gut. A red stain spread across his white shirt. He asked his friend Dave, "I'm dying, aren't I?" On the tape, Lewis appeared to kick McKay.