Life After Death

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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.

By the time Babcock and Cohen introduced me to Odell, he was a shriveled, rotting 49-year-old man confined to a wheelchair in an Oak Cliff nursing home that smelled like piss and death. His penis had been removed because of gangrene, the result of his shooting heroin into the last remaining vein he could find worth a damn. He had syphilis. He denied everything. "I never did nothing to hurt those kids," he said. "I just got these demons in my head, and I gotta get rid of them." He finally died in September 1994, when cancer and syphilis did him in.

The Observer's story about Andre Lewis, "Who We're Killing," appeared February 11, 1993. He was to die seven days later, but Judge Fish granted him a reprieve hours before the needle was to be jabbed into Lewis' arm. That stay set into motion 11 years' worth of appeals, legal filings and hearings, during which one man in faraway San Francisco struggled to keep Lewis from dying. That he actually succeeded surprised the hell out of him.

When attorney Richard Ellis took Andre Lewis' case in late 1992, he had already been practicing law for 17 years, during which he had represented kids accused of murder. But in the early 1990s--"after much thought and reflection," he says now--Ellis decided to take on death penalty cases, which he viewed as "a civil rights struggle." And where better to begin than in Texas, where killin' criminals is a way of life?

"It's all about race and class and the poor who don't get adequate representation all the way through, from trial to appeal to post-conviction," Ellis says from his Bay Area offices. "It's about poor people not being able to afford decent attorneys who can do a decent job in court, not being given the funds by the state to fund their court-appointed attorneys. To do death penalty, one should be on the front lines of the death penalty, which is Texas and not California. It's like if you were doing civil rights work in the 1960s and going to New York City or Minneapolis. It's not where the center of action was. And the center of action regarding the death penalty is, and has been for the last who knows how long, Texas."

So he went looking for a case and found Lewis', boxes of files that had piled on Sandra Babcock and Elizabeth Cohen's desks and their floors and everywhere else they could see in their tiny Austin offices. They were happy for the assistance--desperate for it, in fact. It would take months for Ellis to catch up with the case, but initially he had little time: Lewis' first execution date was rapidly approaching, and the two Texas attorneys were buried beneath paperwork. "It was like a relay race in the Olympics: You hand off the baton," Ellis says. "They handed it off, and here's where it stayed for the next 11 and a half years."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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