‘The Most Vulnerable of the Vulnerable:’ The Story of Erica Sheppard, A Lifelong Victim of Abuse on Death Row


Erica Sheppard earlier than demise row. Left: with Sister Helen Prejean within the late Nineties. Proper: at age 17 holding Haybert—prosecutors labeled her a ‘unhealthy mother.’

When Erica Sheppard wakes up in solitary confinement each morning, she will’t escape her first thought: “Lord, give me the power to make it by way of one other day.”

Her days inside a tiny Texas jail cell have become years—27 years—ready to die for her unwilling position in a theft gone unsuitable.

Sitting in a barren house the dimensions of a small closet, the 48-year-old typically sings, “And shortly I might be free,” lyrics from the Christopher Cross tune “Crusing.” She can’t see exterior by way of her solely window, which is roofed with bars and darkened by a glaze. That is dwelling for at the very least 22 hours day-after-day.

Sheppard is one among 50 ladies on America’s demise row, most of whom, like her, are victims of home vio- lence, psychological sickness or youngster abuse, in line with an evaluation of the ladies’s histories carried out by Ms.

“There’s an utter ethical despair and vanity within the demise penalty, as if we are able to arrange a system by which we are able to decide individuals won’t ever change.”

Sister Helen Prejean

At a time when almost half of U.S. states have repealed the demise penalty, Sheppard’s story illuminates the lives of most of the ladies who stay on demise row and exposes the depravity of sentencing individuals to demise. “There’s an utter ethical despair and vanity within the demise penalty,” writer and demise penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean instructed Ms., “as if we are able to arrange a system by which we are able to decide individuals won’t ever change.”

A baby sufferer

Sheppard was only a preschooler when the abuse started (she was sexually assaulted by her babysitter’s boyfriend). She nonetheless remembers the blood— wiping it up, shoving the crimson towel beneath the toilet sink, attempting to cover it in concern of being punished, she later instructed psychiatry professor Rebekah Bradley, who evaluated her at Mountain View Unit jail in 2008.

After the abuse got here abandonment. When her mom heard concerning the abuse after Sheppard’s brother Jonathan, a witness and sufferer him- self, reported it to their grandmother, she accused her youngsters of mendacity.

“It was one factor for Erica and me to have been bodily and sexually abused,” Jonathan stated in a 2008 affidavit. “However it’s one other factor when the one that is meant to like you and take care of you doesn’t consider you. It made it even worse.”

From then on, sexual assault marred Sheppard’s childhood repeatedly. When she was orally raped at knifepoint after a stranger pulled her right into a automotive whereas she was strolling to purchase meals, 16-year-old Sheppard instructed a pal that she needed to name the police. “They’ll flip it round on you,” Sheppard remembers her pal telling her. “You’re gonna need to study you possibly can’t inform.”

Raped and presumably drugged at a celebration when she was 16, she didn’t inform her mom or grandmother concerning the assault, satisfied that nobody would consider her. By then, she had discovered. “You stuff it, and you progress on,” she later instructed Bradley, the psychiatry professor.

Erica Sheppard earlier than demise row. Left: Sheppard as a younger woman—she was a preschooler when she was first sexually assaulted. Proper: along with her mom and her son Haybert, the one one among her youngsters with reminiscences of her exterior of jail.

However she couldn’t transfer on. Indicators of despair, post-traumatic stress dysfunction (PTSD) and dissociation had been already rising. She tried to have a childhood, changing into secretary of her church’s Sunday faculty in junior excessive, however she’d wake within the evening, sweating as her coronary heart pounded, remembering solely a sense of “being damage, being left someplace.” Typically snakes haunted her desires.

Sheppard’s father, Alexander, was a heavy drinker who bodily abused her mom whereas she was pregnant with Sheppard. He barely noticed Sheppard and Jonathan. Their mom, Madelyn Johnson—who had been abused by her personal mom—beat Sheppard and Jonathan with belts and wood boards, and strangled Sheppard with a cellphone wire, in line with affidavits and information from a youth shelter. The extra beatings she withstood, the extra numb Sheppard turned—a standard signal of PTSD, in line with Bradley’s report and one by forensic psychologist Mark Cunningham, who additionally evaluated Sheppard’s trauma historical past.

It appeared as if there was no approach out.

She was solely 17 when she met Jerry Bryant Jr., who later beat her within the car parking zone of a hospital the place her toddler daughter, Audria, was receiving therapy. Sheppard wouldn’t go away Audria’s aspect, and when she refused to go dwelling with Bryant, he hit her within the head so laborious that she fainted.

Such never-ending abuse led to mind harm, in line with a 2008 analysis of Sheppard by scientific psychologist Myla Younger. Because of fixed concern, fixed tumult and fixed head harm from abuse, Sheppard has the approximate psychological age of a 14-year-old woman, Younger’s report says.

Simply 4 weeks earlier than the incident that landed her on demise row, Sheppard sought refuge at a ladies’s shelter along with her 3-year-old son Haybert and 10-month-old daughter Audria. When she left after 9 days, she knew she couldn’t go dwelling to extra abuse, however she had no thought she’d quickly be dealing with jail and a demise sentence. All she knew was that she was hurting. By the point she was 17, Sheppard had run away from dwelling greater than 10 occasions.

“Erica got here by to choose her issues up,” wrote Jennie Mozley of the Matagor- da County Ladies’s Disaster Heart on Sheppard’s final day on the shelter. “She’s in a variety of ache. I wanted her luck.” A couple of month later, Sheppard cried as she was pressured to look at her brother’s pal stab and beat a lady to demise.

Coerced and terrified

“When you don’t go in, I’ll kill you and the newborn.”

That was the second time that day James Dickerson had threatened Sheppard, then simply 19, and her child daughter as he pressured them inside a neighbor’s house, planning to rob the lady. Sheppard says she was shocked, confused, afraid and crying as Dickerson pressured Marilyn Meagher, a Houston actual property agent, to the bottom as he slit her throat, stabbed her with a knife he demanded Sheppard take from the kitchen, and beat her up over automotive keys and cash.

Sheppard says she was terrified as they drove from Houston to Bay Metropolis, Texas, afterward with Dickerson holding a knife to her and once more telling her he was going to slit her throat and kill her if she tried to flee. When law enforcement officials arrived at a motel the place they had been staying two days later, Sheppard felt momentarily relieved, she later instructed a personal investigator. That was earlier than she knew what awaited her.

She was instantly arrested, spending her first months in jail returning to the Bible research she had beloved as a younger teen, singing hymns like she was again in her church youth choir and worrying about her three youngsters. She cried in her cell at evening, grieving Meagher’s demise.

Sheppard had hoped to turn into a nurse. She had earned her GED certificates at 17 and was attending vocational faculty at 19. She had huge desires, however all of them had been misplaced.

Since 1995, Sheppard has awaited her execution in Gatesville, Texas—one among 11 Black ladies serving demise sentences, a bunch of girls disproportionately represented on demise row.

The jury that convicted her by no means heard her converse.

NOTE: Data not out there for each girl on demise row, so these numbers might be an undercount. SOURCE: Ms. journal

An unfair trial

Throughout her trial for capital homicide, prosecutors referred to as the 19-year-old woman a “jackal” and a “predator,” instructed her she was “no woman” and condemned her to face execution within the state that has the second-most ladies on demise row within the nation—all for being threatened and coerced into collaborating in a deadly theft when she was barely a authorized grownup.

For prosecutors, the little proof of abuse offered at her trial was no trigger for mercy. The fraction of the trauma historical past they knew about was mocked.

“She was not bodily abused; however even when she was, what sort of excuse is that?” prosecutor Julian Ramirez stated throughout closing arguments in Houston’s Harris County District Court docket—the place data show that prosecutors throughout this time unequally pursued demise sentences towards Black defendants.

Prosecutors demeaned Sheppard as “nothing however a hunter.” And so they labeled her a nasty mom.

“In all probability the very best factor for these children is the truth that Erica Sheppard is not going to play a job of their upbringing,” Ramirez stated at trial. Her three youngsters had been so younger when she was arrested that they’ve largely identified their mom behind bars.

Twenty-five years after she was convicted, one appeals court docket decide objected to Sheppard’s therapy, saying she’d had an unfair trial and a protection lawyer who failed her.

“Erica Sheppard was sentenced to demise by a jury that didn’t know that she has mind harm and the cognitive capacity of a 14-year-old,” Decide Carolyn Dineen King of the fifth U.S. Circuit Court docket of Appeals wrote, opposing the court docket’s determination that Sheppard’s homicide conviction stand. “And the jury heard solely remoted snippets of the intensive abuse and trauma that she suffered all through her life. … I can’t shrug off these vital issues,” King wrote in her dissenting opinion.

King was the one decide on the appeals court docket’s three-judge panel who spoke up for Sheppard.

Ache in jail

For almost three many years, Erica Sheppard has been locked away in close to whole isolation, affected by a spinal situation brought on by years of abuse, residing with out photos on the wall of household or buddies, with out even a wheelchair to assist her transfer round, in line with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which discovered that Sheppard’s human rights are at critical threat.

She spends her days shuffling between the mattress and the bathroom, gripping on to the partitions and furnishings to remain upright. “It’s like my physique can’t maintain itself up by itself,” Sheppard wrote in a letter to the jail’s medical apply supervisor final yr. “The ache is debilitating and insufferable.”

With out a wheelchair, it takes Sheppard so long as an hour to stroll from her cell to the jail visitation space, in line with a petition to the Inter-American Fee. However the state refuses to offer her any reduction.

“Please help me,” Sheppard begged in her letter. “I’m already just about confined to my cell as a consequence of my mobility points. I don’t wish to have to surrender my visits as properly. That’s all I’ve left.”

The demise penalty as we speak

The tide is popping towards the death penalty within the U.S., with Virginia changing into the 23rd state to outlaw the death penalty final yr. Executions and demise sentences are nonetheless dominated by three Southern states, in line with a 2021 report from the Dying Penalty Data Heart (DPIC). Texas, the place Sheppard waits on demise row, executed three individuals final yr, probably the most of any state in 2021, tying with the federal authorities.

Though a slim majority of People nonetheless assist the demise penalty, approval is at its lowest stage in half a century, in line with the DPIC report. In a recent poll, a plurality of People opposed the demise penalty for individuals like Sheppard who’ve endured extreme bodily or sexual abuse as youngsters.

Writing to Ms., Sheppard stated the legal justice system is denying ladies’s humanity. “They’ve been traumatized in life, and incarcerating ladies in locations or in a system that has already failed them is extra traumatizing. … You might be merely victimizing them extra and anticipating them to be regular, and that’s unrealistic and unreasonable as a result of there’s nothing regular about trauma,” she wrote. “We’re human identical to everybody else and now we have emotions too.”

A cell for girls on demise row on the Texas jail the place Erica Sheppard is housed

A mom mourns

On a cloudy, windy day in April, Sheppard picked up a cellphone handset and spoke to Ms. from behind a plastic wall. No strategy to shake arms throughout a barrier. Solely palms assembly up towards the plastic and a simulated hug. The visitation space of Mountain View Unit jail was empty aside from just a few guards and an official from the Texas Division of Prison Justice. Within the entry room, miniature chairs for visiting youngsters sat vacant that morning, ready for teenagers to come back see their mother and father residing behind bars.

Wearing white, with a walker by her aspect, Sheppard mirrored on a lifetime of misplaced moments along with her children—bag lunches, garments buying, taking them to the park.

“The connection that you’ve got together with your youngsters while you’re in a position to be round them each day, that’s affected while you’re not round them each day,” she stated. “It’s affected in each methods—of their life and in my life. Sure, they know I’m their mom, however have they got that bond with me? I don’t know.”

Her oldest son, Haybert, died all of the sudden final fall at age 31, the one one among her youngsters who remembered his mom exterior jail. Now that he’s gone, her remaining two youngsters live with out their brother’s tales of what dwelling was like earlier than their mom was sentenced to demise and despatched away. They miss him, she stated. She misses him.

By way of the ache that radiates down her physique all day, day-after-day, by way of the reminiscences of childhood abuse and trauma, by way of the loneliness of confinement, Erica Sheppard nonetheless has a want—to volunteer to carry infants, mentor youngsters or work with veterans. She remembers what she wanted as a youngster, and the acts of kindness that sustained her: buddies of her mom giving Sheppard cash for diapers or babysitting when she wanted to work or go to high school.

The place would Sheppard be as we speak if her younger life had been totally different? If she had had a secure dwelling? Or wholesome relationships?

“What number of lives might be drastically modified if any person stepped out and stated, ‘You understand what? I don’t care what individuals say,’” Sheppard stated to Ms. “‘I don’t care what you’ve completed. I don’t care what any person says you’ve completed or regardless of the state of affairs may be. I’m gonna step out and I’m gonna take an opportunity on you. Since you matter.’”

This article originally appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Ms. Become a member today to read more reporting like this in print and through our app.

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