“I’m just sitting in limbo right now. There’s no hope when you’re in here. When you’re guilty… Accept it.”
Skim read the story of Myrtle Ruby’s murder and you’ll no doubt think it a cynical and callous crime. Hear a fuller version of the 74-year-old’s brutal killing and you’ll still likely consider it to be a vile event that leaves your blood running cold. Hell, maybe even in full and total receipt of the facts you may think that it’s an open and shut case of a twisted killer gunning down an elderly woman and deserving to die for his actions. You wouldn’t be the only one to think like that. Twelve of David Lee Lewis’ peers agreed that in taking Ms Ruby’s life, he was guilty of capital murder. A transgression considered so heinous in the state of Texas that they’ll kill you for committing it.
The murder of Myrtle Ruby occurred back in 1987, some thirty plus years ago. One year later, an emotionless and blank-looking David Lewis sat in an East Texas courthouse, standing trial for her murder. A murder that he had never denied and very quickly confessed to. It didn’t take the jury long to agree that the prosecution’s capital murder charge for the 22-year-old was a fair one.
Since being led away in chains that days some 31 years ago, Lewis has spent every single day on Death Row. He’s still alive to this day, waiting to be killed.
Myrtle Ruby's home was off the Old Wells Highway in Pollok, Angelina County. Eleven miles northwest of the city of Lufkin, the house was close to David Lewis' grandfather's trailer. Drunk and high on mushrooms one night, Lewis decided to go late-night hunting for deer with a handgun, of all things. Taking a shortcut, he walked past the Ruby residence. A street kid that had stolen to live for some six years by this point, he decided - on seeing no vehicle out front and no lights on in the house - to burgle the property.
As he was bagging and wrapping up items to steal from the house, Lewis heard a noise from within the house. Ms Ruby had returned home late. As she walked into the hallway, he heard her and panicked...
Lewis takes up the rest of the story: “When I seen it was an old woman I was like, 'Oh, man...' Because I couldn't see really her properly before. All I could see was a silhouette of somebody coming through as I was coming out and I just raised the gun and pulled the trigger and hit her in the eye. She turned towards me and started to fall, screaming and that's when I struck her with the butt of the gun. I think the blow to the head is what killed her because she was still alive from the shot because she was screaming. And when I turned the light on and seen who it was, I was like, 'Oh no!'”
Less than twelve months later, David Lee Lewis found himself on Death Row. That won’t surprise too many people, given the state of Texas’ renowned history of strict sentencing. Ms Ruby was late home because she had been at church. A kindly Christian killed in her own home by a drunk thief who was high on drugs and waving a gun around? Only the most willfully naïve of defence attorneys would go into a trial like this in the Lone Star State with any real hope of anything other than a conviction of capital murder and the death sentence. You’d need some serious mitigation leverage.
In this case, though? Lewis and his team actually had that kind of mitigation. Lewis is, by the reckoning of more than one defence-called expert in the field, ‘intellectually disabled’. He showed - and continues to show - quite obvious learning difficulties. He demonstrates, as rather indelicately described by an American psychologist in this fifth episode of I am a Killer, ‘clear mental retardation’.
At the time of Lewis’ sentencing, back on April 7th, 1987, there was no law in place to prevent the execution of anyone consider intellectually disabled. As of 2002, there has been. The threshold is determined by a simple IQ test. Which, while easy for lawmakers, lawyers, judges, jurors and the public to understand, doesn't begin to fully explore or determine a person's true intellectual capability. An IQ test is grossly one dimensional and hugely incapable of presenting a clear and concise determination on a human being's understanding of the world.
Tell that to the judicial system of Texas.
When David Lewis was tested by the state during a later appeal, he scored between 69 and 85 on a IQ test. While up to 29 IQ points fewer than the average person on the street, it was not low enough to see his sentence reduced.
In 1993 however, Lewis finally got his chance to get off Death Row. His capital murder conviction and death sentence were reversed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals after a significant number of court records were lost through human error and incompetence. He was retried later that year and, understandably, hoped for a reduced sentence. He didn't get one. He pled guilty again and a jury convicted him again. He was sentenced to death. Again.
There are two reasons why inmate #999866 received the death penalty and not life without parole in ‘87 and ‘93. There are…
Lewis bummed about of the streets of East Texas towns and cities and stole to eat. He was a low-level criminal. A punk kid. At least he was before he killed Ms Ruby. And before he stabbed a man in the stomach during a vehicle robbery some months before the Ruby murder. Lewis’ behaviour and crimes had escalated over 1986 and the fact that he was a proven criminal and thief that had substance abuse issues and a history of multiple violent crimes meant that jurors had little trouble answering this question when it was put to them…
Lewis and his mother, schoolteachers, family, friends and defence attorney all agree that he has learning difficulties. His guilt in the crime was never argued. David was responsible for shooting Myrtle Ruby through the face. What isn’t so obvious is whether or not he had the capacity to understand his actions before, during and after the crime.
As the jury were asked, had Lewis ‘knowingly and intelligently committed the crime?’
That was enough. Those two questions are all that’s asked of the jury to determine whether a capital murder charge is appropriate. And so - Lewis deserved to die. Three decades after been convicted and sent to Death Row, David Lee Lewis remains there. The threat of public execution still looming over his head. His appeals have all been rejected, yet no date has ever been set for his lethal injection. He’s in limbo. Still. But he’s accepted it.