An Arlington woman who abused and starved the 9-year-old son of her live-in girlfriend is set to be executed Wednesday evening, the first Tarrant County woman to be put to death since executions resumed in Texas in 1982.
Lisa Ann Coleman, 38, was convicted in 2006 in the death of Davontae Williams, one of three children of Marcella Williams.
Davontae’s body was found July 26, 2004. He had been beaten and bound, weighed 35 pounds and his body bore more than 250 scars, according to evidence presented at trial.
Initially, both Coleman and Williams were charged with capital murder.
Coleman’s attorneys are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block her scheduled execution.
Her appellate attorney, John Stickels, filed a clemency application in Texas on Aug. 27, arguing that Coleman is not guilty of capital murder and requesting that Gov. Rick Perry commute her sentence to life in prison. The board voted unanimously on Monday not to recommend commutation or a reprieve of Coleman’s sentence.
The clemency petition states that Coleman may be guilty of causing Devontae’s death but not guilty of capital murder.
Stickels said Coleman was punished with death because she had the temerity to take her case to a jury. Prosecutors never offered Coleman a plea bargain as they later did Williams, Stickels said.
“What she’s really guilty of is being a black lesbian,” Stickels said. “If she is executed, it will be because of her sexual orientation. Her sexual orientation played a role in the state choosing to seek the death penalty and in her getting the death penalty.
“I have hope that I can save her.”
After Coleman was sentenced to death, Williams pleaded guilty to capital murder in exchange for a life sentence and will be eligible for parole in July 2044, when she is 66.
If Coleman is executed Wednesday, she will be the sixth woman put to death in Texas since 1982, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice records, and the 15th since the Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in 1976.
Case based on kidnapping
Coleman was charged with capital murder before the Texas statute changed in 2011 making the killing of a child age 10 or younger a capital crime. In Coleman’s case, prosecutors used kidnapping as the underlying charge justifying the death penalty.
Prosecutors argued at her trial that Coleman did not allow Davontae to have visitors, kept him from visiting others by restraining him and told people he was not at the apartment when he was there, in effect saying that using such restraints and keeping Davontae’s location a secret was kidnapping.
Stickels’ clemency petition is based on the assertion that Coleman is not guilty of kidnapping and therefore cannot be guilty of capital murder. In the appeal he recently filed in the federal court system, Stickels contends that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals referred to the idea that Devontae had been kidnapped in his own home as “counterintutive.”
It was only the kidnapping component of the prosecutors’ capital murder case that made Coleman eligible for the death penalty, Stickels said. In his filings, he says that the federal court or Perry should take the time to consider new evidence about the kidnapping component, Stickels said.
“Of the claims made by the state, the court found that the kidnapping case was the weakest,” Stickels said.
The appeal also claims that at least four people saw Davontae Williams playing with other children a week or less before his body was found, Stickels argued. The evidence showed that Davontae Williams was restrained with his mother’s permission no more than twice and only then for his own safety, Stickels said.
A Tarrant County district court denied Coleman’s appeal last week. Stickels appeaed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which has not responded.
‘Nothing new’ in appeal
A Tarrant County jury deliberated about three hours in June 2006 before recommending the death penalty.
“This 9-year-old child suffered a horrific death at the hands of Lisa Ann Coleman,” said Dixie Bersano, one of the Tarrant County prosecutors who presented the state’s case. “Davontae died of malnutrition, a slow and cruel process.
“There was not an inch on his body that had not been bruised or scarred or injured. The jury assessed the appropriate punishment. Court testimony during Coleman’s trial showed that she had a leading parental role and was the decision-maker on how Davontae should be treated.”
Tarrant County prosecutors in the appellate office maintain that the execution should be carried out as scheduled.
“Our position on this is that all of these issues have been fully litigated in state and federal court,” said Steven Conder, Tarrant County’s chief of post-conviction writs. “There is nothing new in these petitions that have not already been considered by the courts.”
Death penalty unfair
Coleman’s aunt, Tonya Brown, said her niece does not deserve to die. The courts are skewed in favor of the people with the most money, Brown said. Brown said evidence of the system’s unfairness is as recent as the case of Ethan Couch, a white teenager who received a sentence of 10 years probation and psychiatric treatment after driving drunk and killing four people.
Brown also said the court acted unfairly when it decided to give Davontae Williams’ mother a life sentence and Coleman death.
“If you don’t have money, you cannot get good representation,” Brown said. “She’s given her life to Christ and she’s trusting in His grace and mercy and believing that God will work it out.”
Fred Cummings, one of Coleman’s defense attorneys during the capital murder trial, said her attorneys sought a plea agreement but never got an offer from the Tarrant County district attorney’s office. Cummings, who said he has been a prosecutor, a defense attorney and a police officer, said the death penalty is unfair in the way it is administered and nearly impossible to fix.
Had Coleman’s trial been in a smaller county, it is likely the district attorney’s office would not have had the money to pursue a death penalty trial, Cummings said. Or, if Coleman’s trial been more recent, after the law changed to permit a sentence of life without parole, prosecutors might not have sought the death penalty, Cummings said.
“The DNA exonerations are illustrative of the fact that we often don’t get these right,” Cummings said. “There are confessions, eyewitness testimony, that juries often rely on that turn out to be wrong.”
Davontae’s death was one of several cases cited in 2005 when the Legislature passed a bill sponsored by state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, that overhauled the state’s protective services agencies.
Child Protective Services first investigated Williams in 1995 when she was 14 and Davontae was 2 months old. Caseworkers investigated her six more times until 2002 when they lost track of the family.