A 38-year-old Arlington woman is scheduled to be executed in Texas on Wednesday for the starvation death of her girlfriend’s son, Davontae Marcel Williams.
Lisa Ann Coleman would be the the sixth woman — and 517th person — to be executed in the state since 1982, the year Texas reinstated the death penalty following a 1976 Supreme Court decision that allowed states to resume capital punishment. She would be the ninth person executed in Texas this year.
Coleman was living with her girlfriend, Marcella Williams, in an Arlington apartment complex when paramedics discovered the starved corpse of a 9-year-old boy on July 26, 2004. He had been beaten, bore 250 scars and weighed 35 pounds at the time of his death, about half the typical weight for a child his age.
At the time of his death, Davontae was suffering from pneumonia. His cause of death was malnutrition with pneumonia as a contributing factor, according to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office.
Both Coleman and the boy’s mother were charged with capital murder. But Williams pleaded guilty in 2006 to avoid facing the death penalty at trial. Child Protective Services records showed Williams and her son had been the subject of at least six child abuse investigations.
Coleman’s attorney, John Stickels of Arlington, is appealing her death sentence based on how his client was initially charged.
In Texas, there has to be an underlying felony or second crime committed for a defendant to be charged with capital murder. Before 2011, those underlying crimes were murder, kidnapping, burglary, robbery, obstruction or terroristic threat. But in 2011, lawmakers added the killing of a child under the age of 10 to those underlying crimes.
In the Davontae Williams case, prosecutors used kidnapping as the underlying crime. Prosecutors presented evidence that Davontae had been locked in a pantry and kept from leaving his own home.
But Stickels says there was no kidnapping, at least not according to Texas law. His appeal to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans based on that claim was rejected late Tuesday and he asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.
“It is wrong, it is child abuse, but it’s not kidnapping,” Stickels said. “I’m not saying she’s innocent and did not do something wrong. But it’s just not kidnapping.”
At Coleman’s 2006 trial, it was revealed that the two women bound Davontae’s wrists and sometimes locked him in a pantry. Stickels said that even though the law defines kidnapping as placing someone in an area with the intention of hiding them, it is not kidnapping if a parent places a child in a room to punish him.
“Lisa is absolutely innocent of capital murder,” Stickels insisted. “And if they execute her, they will be executing someone who is innocent of capital murder.”
Reports from those prior CPS investigations detailed how Davontae was found to be hungry. In 1999, he and his sister, Destinee, were placed into foster care after Davontae was found to have been beaten with an extension cord. Coleman denied beating him with a cord, and Williams told CPS that they had bound him with one. Davontae, born four months premature, had developmental disabilities, according to a clinical psychologist who examined the boy after he was placed in foster care.
The two children were eventually returned when Williams promised to stay away from Coleman.
In 2004, Davontae’s case was part of a state review of 1,103 child abuse cases in North Texas that was ordered by Gov. Rick Perry. The state's Health and Human Services Commission Office of Inspector General found that CPS caseworkers failed 70 percent of the time to act quickly to protect a child in danger.
"It appears that CPS Region 3 [Dallas/Fort Worth] was performing at a minimum standard and often below standards," Brian Flood, the commission's inspector general at the time, said in his report to the governor. "When abuse or neglect was indicated in the file, only 30 percent of the time did CPS caseworkers implement the appropriate safety steps for the short term protection of the child."