When Erica Sheppard wakes up in solitary confinement every morning, she can’t escape her first thought: “Lord, give me the strength to make it through another day.”
Her days inside a tiny Texas prison cell have turned into years—27 years—waiting to die for her unwilling role in a robbery gone wrong.
Sitting in a barren space the size of a small closet, the 48-year-old sometimes sings, “And soon I will be free,” lyrics from the Christopher Cross song “Sailing.” She cannot see outside through her only window, which is covered with bars and darkened by a glaze. This is home for at least 22 hours every day.
Sheppard is one of 50 women on America’s death row, most of whom, like her, are victims of domestic violence, mental illness or child abuse, according to an analysis of the women’s histories conducted by Ms.
There’s an utter moral despair and arrogance in the death penalty, as if we can set up a system by which we can determine people will never change.Sister Helen Prejean
At a time when nearly half of U.S. states have repealed the death penalty, Sheppard’s story illuminates the lives of many of the women who remain on death row and exposes the depravity of sentencing people to death. “There’s an utter moral despair and arrogance in the death penalty,” author and death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean told Ms., “as if we can set up a system by which we can determine people will never change.”
A Child Victim
Sheppard was just a preschooler when the abuse began (she was sexually assaulted by her babysitter’s boyfriend). She still remembers the blood—wiping it up, shoving the red towel under the bathroom sink, trying to hide it in fear of being punished, she later told psychiatry professor Rebekah Bradley, who evaluated her at Mountain View Unit prison in 2008.
After the abuse came abandonment. When her mother heard about the abuse after Sheppard’s brother Jonathan, a witness and victim himself, reported it to their grandmother, she accused her children of lying.
“It was one thing for Erica and me to have been physically and sexually abused,” Jonathan said in a 2008 affidavit. “But it is another thing when the person who is supposed to love you and care for you does not believe 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 into a car while she was walking to buy food, 16-year-old Sheppard told a friend that she wanted to call the police. “They’ll turn it around on you,” Sheppard recalls her friend telling her. “You’re gonna have to learn you can’t tell.”
Raped and possibly drugged at a party when she was 16, she didn’t tell her mother or grandmother about the assault, convinced that no one would believe her. By then, she had learned. “You stuff it, and you move on,” she later told Bradley, the psychiatry professor.
But she couldn’t move on. Signs of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and dissociation were already emerging. She tried to have a childhood, becoming secretary of her church’s Sunday school in junior high, but she’d wake in the night, sweating as her heart pounded, remembering only a feeling of “being hurt, being left somewhere.” Sometimes snakes haunted her dreams.
Sheppard’s father, Alexander, was a heavy drinker who physically abused her mother while she was pregnant with Sheppard. He barely saw Sheppard and Jonathan. Their mother, Madelyn Johnson—who had been abused by her own mother—beat Sheppard and Jonathan with belts and wooden boards, and strangled Sheppard with a phone cord, according to affidavits and records from a youth shelter. The more beatings she withstood, the more numb Sheppard became—a common sign of PTSD, according to Bradley’s report and one by forensic psychologist Mark Cunningham, who also evaluated Sheppard’s trauma history.
It seemed as if there was no way out.
She was only 17 when she met Jerry Bryant Jr., who later beat her in the parking lot of a hospital where her infant daughter, Audria, was receiving treatment. Sheppard wouldn’t leave Audria’s side, and when she refused to go home with Bryant, he hit her in the face so hard that she fainted.
Such unending abuse led to brain damage, according to a 2008 evaluation of Sheppard by clinical psychologist Myla Young. As a result of constant fear, constant tumult and constant head injury from abuse, Sheppard has the approximate mental age of a 14-year-old girl, Young’s report says.
Just four weeks before the incident that landed her on death row, Sheppard sought refuge at a women’s shelter with her 3-year-old son Haybert and 10-month-old daughter Audria. When she left after nine days, she knew she couldn’t go home to more abuse, but she had no idea she’d soon be facing prison and a death sentence. All she knew was that she was hurting. By the time she was 17, Sheppard had run away from home more than 10 times.
“Erica came by to pick her things up,” wrote Jennie Mozley of the Matagorda County Women’s Crisis Center on Sheppard’s last day at the shelter. “She’s in a lot of pain. I wished her luck.” About a month later, Sheppard cried as she was forced to watch her brother’s friend stab and beat a woman to death.
Coerced and Terrified
“If you don’t go in, I’ll kill you and the baby.”
That was the second time that day James Dickerson had threatened Sheppard, then just 19, and her baby daughter as he forced them inside a neighbor’s apartment, planning to rob the woman. Sheppard says she was shocked, confused, afraid and crying as Dickerson forced Marilyn Meagher, a Houston real estate agent, to the ground as he slit her throat, stabbed her with a knife he demanded Sheppard take from the kitchen, and beat her up over car keys and money.
Sheppard says she was terrified as they drove from Houston to Bay City, Texas, afterward with Dickerson holding a knife to her and again telling her he was going to slit her throat and kill her if she tried to escape. When police officers arrived at a motel where they were staying two days later, Sheppard felt momentarily relieved, she later told a private investigator. That was before she knew what awaited her.
She was immediately arrested, spending her first months in jail returning to the Bible study she had loved as a young teen, singing hymns like she was back in her church youth choir and worrying about her three children. She cried in her cell at night, grieving Meagher’s death.
Sheppard had hoped to become a nurse. She had earned her GED certificate at 17 and was attending vocational school at 19. She had big dreams, but all of them were lost.
Since 1995, Sheppard has awaited her execution in Gatesville, Texas—one of 11 Black women serving death sentences, a group of women disproportionately represented on death row.
The jury that convicted her never heard her speak.
An Unfair Trial
During her trial for capital murder, prosecutors called the 19-year-old girl a “jackal” and a “predator,” told her she was “no lady” and condemned her to face execution in the state that has the second-most women on death row in the country—all for being threatened and coerced into participating in a fatal robbery when she was barely a legal adult.
For prosecutors, the little evidence of abuse presented at her trial was no cause for mercy. The fraction of the trauma history they knew about was mocked.
“She was not physically abused; but even if she was, what kind of excuse is that?” prosecutor Julian Ramirez said during closing arguments in Houston’s Harris County District Court—where data show that prosecutors during this time unequally pursued death sentences against Black defendants.
Prosecutors demeaned Sheppard as “nothing but a hunter.” And they labeled her a bad mother.
“Probably the best thing for those kids is the fact that Erica Sheppard will not play a role in their upbringing,” Ramirez said at trial. Her three children were so young when she was arrested that they’ve mostly known their mother behind bars.
Twenty-five years after she was convicted, one appeals court judge objected to Sheppard’s treatment, saying she’d had an unfair trial and a defense lawyer who failed her.
“Erica Sheppard was sentenced to death by a jury that did not know that she has brain damage and the cognitive ability of a 14-year-old,” Judge Carolyn Dineen King of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote, opposing the court’s decision that Sheppard’s murder conviction stand. “And the jury heard only isolated snippets of the extensive abuse and trauma that she suffered throughout her life. … I cannot shrug off these important matters,” King wrote in her dissenting opinion.
King was the only judge on the appeals court’s three-judge panel who spoke up for Sheppard.
Pain in Prison
For nearly three decades, Erica Sheppard has been locked away in near total isolation, suffering from a spinal condition caused by years of abuse, living without pictures on the wall of family or friends, without even a wheelchair to help her move around, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which found that Sheppard’s human rights are at serious risk.
She spends her days shuffling between the bed and the toilet, gripping on to the walls and furniture to stay upright. “It’s like my body can’t hold itself up on its own,” Sheppard wrote in a letter to the prison’s medical practice manager last year. “The pain is debilitating and unbearable.”
Without a wheelchair, it takes Sheppard as long as an hour to walk from her cell to the prison visitation area, according to a petition to the Inter-American Commission. But the state refuses to provide her any relief.
“Please assist me,” Sheppard begged in her letter. “I am already pretty much confined to my cell due to my mobility issues. I don’t want to have to give up my visits as well. That’s all I have left. Please help me.”
The Death Penalty Today
The tide is turning against the death penalty in the U.S., with Virginia becoming the 23rd state to outlaw the death penalty last year. Executions and death sentences are still dominated by three Southern states, according to a 2021 report from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). Texas, where Sheppard waits on death row, executed three people last year, the most of any state in 2021, tying with the federal government. The state has already executed one person so far this year—an elderly man so frail that he could barely walk.
Although a narrow majority of Americans still support the death penalty, approval is at its lowest level in half a century, according to the DPIC report. In a recent poll, a plurality of Americans opposed the death penalty for people like Sheppard who have endured severe physical or sexual abuse as children.
Writing to Ms., Sheppard said the criminal justice system is denying women’s humanity. “They have been traumatized in life, and incarcerating women in places or in a system that has already failed them is more traumatizing. … You are simply victimizing them more and expecting them to be normal, and that’s unrealistic and unreasonable because there is nothing normal about trauma,” she wrote. “We are human just like everyone else and we have feelings too.”
Two Mothers Mourn
Looking back, Madelyn Johnson admits she made “some real serious mistakes” in her relationship with Erica. The truth would have been too painful. If she acknowledged Erica had been sexually abused when she was as young as 3 years old, she’d know she had failed her daughter.
“I don’t think I wanted to believe it,” Johnson testified at Erica’s 2008 post-conviction hearing. “That would mean that I hadn’t protected my children.”
The legacy of abuse had been passed down, through two generations, before it reached Erica. “We’re a product of our environments,” Johnson testified. Madelyn had been physically and verbally abused by her own mother, telling psychiatry professor Bradley, “I was scared of my mother ‘til the day she died.”
On a cloudy, windy day in April, Sheppard picked up a phone handset and spoke to Ms. from behind a plastic wall. No way to shake hands across a barrier. Only palms meeting up against the plastic and a simulated hug. The visitation area of Mountain View Unit prison was empty except for a few guards and an official from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. In the entry room, miniature chairs for visiting children sat vacant that morning, waiting for kids to come see their parents living behind bars. Erica’s children grew up that way—with a mother confined.
Dressed in white, with a walker by her side, Sheppard reflected on a lifetime of lost moments with her kids—bag lunches, clothes shopping, taking them to the park.
“The connection that you have with your children when you’re able to be around them on a daily basis, that’s affected when you’re not around them on a daily basis,” she said. “It’s affected in both ways—in their life and in my life. Yes, they know I’m their mother, but do they have that bond with me? I don’t know.”
Her oldest son, Haybert, died suddenly last fall at age 31, the only one of her children who remembered his mother outside prison. Now that he’s gone, her remaining two children are living without their brother’s stories of what home was like before their mother was sentenced to death and sent away. They miss him, she said. She misses him.
Through the pain that radiates down her body all day, every day, through the memories of childhood abuse and trauma, through the loneliness of confinement, Erica Sheppard still has a wish—to volunteer to hold babies, mentor teenagers or work with veterans. She remembers what she needed as a young person, and the acts of kindness that sustained her: friends of her mother giving Sheppard money for diapers or babysitting when she needed to work or go to school.
Where would Sheppard be today if her young life had been different? If she had had a stable home? Or healthy relationships?
“How many lives will be drastically changed if somebody stepped out and said, ‘You know what? I don’t care what people say,’” Sheppard said to Ms. “‘I don’t care what you’ve done. I don’t care what somebody says you’ve done or whatever the situation might be. I’m gonna step out and I’m gonna take a chance on you. Because you matter.’”