Though the details of Lisa Coleman’s case are horrific, as she was convicted of viciously abusing and starving to death a 9-year-old boy, her lawyer claims that the reason she is scheduled to be executed Wednesday night by the state of Texas is because she is “Black, a lesbian and an easy target.”
Coleman, 38, would be just the 15th woman put to death in the U.S. since the restoration of the death penalty in 1976. Though women commit 10 percent of the murders in the U.S., they account for just 1 percent of executions, as juries appear less willing to vote to put women to death than men.
The details of Coleman’s case are blood-curdling. Emergency services workers who arrived at the home Coleman shared with her lover, Marcella Williams, found the bruised and emaciated dead body of Williams’ 9-year-old son, Davontae Williams. The boy reportedly was wearing bandages and a diaper. A pediatrician subsequently found more than 250 wounds on the boy’s corpse, which weighed less than 36 pounds. Nine-year-olds typically weigh at least twice that amount.
They lived in an apartment just south of the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium.
Texas child protective services reportedly had repeatedly investigated Williams and even removed the child from her custody for a period in the 1990s. Fearful that he would be taken away again, his mother avoided bringing him to the doctor so that she wouldn’t be reported to state authorities.
Doctors said the boy appeared to have been hit with a golf club and had injuries to his hands, arms and ankles, suggesting he had been bound repeatedly. His cause of death was determined to be malnutrition with pneumonia.
In her defense, Coleman’s lawyers said the boy accidentally drowned in his own vomit.
“The state singled Lisa out and figured some way to get her the death penalty because she was Black, a lesbian and an easy target … it was a slam dunk,” said one of her attorneys, John Stickels. “The facts of the case were horrible. We are not asking for her to be released, we are just asking the state to be fair and follow the law.”
Her lawyers have questioned whether it was proper to charge Coleman with kidnapping, since the boy often was seen playing outside the house. That means Coleman did not kidnap the child and is not eligible for the death penalty, they claim.
But Tuesday, the federal 5th Circuit appeals court rejected this argument.
Coleman’s own upbringing was also fairly gruesome. Her lawyers argued that this upbringing made her an unsuitable guardian, but she wasn’t a deliberately violent killer.
Court documents show Coleman, who has bipolar disorder, was born after her mother got pregnant at age 13 by a family member who raped her. Coleman was also physically and sexually abused by family members and grew up in foster care, where she may also have been sexually abused. Her mother, who rarely visited her, gave her the nickname “Pig.” Coleman was knifed in the back by a cousin at age 11 and her cousins would taunt her because she was born as a result of rape. By age 16, she had started drinking and using drugs and had a child of her own.
But prosecutors made sure to take the focus off Coleman’s background and place it squarely on the abuse suffered by 9-year-old Davontae.
“This 9-year-old child suffered a horrific death at the hands of Lisa Ann Coleman. 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,” Dixie Bersano, one of the trial prosecutors, said in a statement, according to the Guardian.
Coleman’s lover, Marcella Williams, who went to trial after Coleman, pleaded guilty and was given a life sentence.
Since 1976, a total of 14 women in seven states have been executed. There have been 1,374 men executed in 34 states.
“If anything, gender might play a role that might be more favorable to women, although there’s not really statistical proof of that because there’s relatively few cases,” Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the Guardian. “It’s not just whether a murder’s been committed but whether it’s an aggravated murder, usually a murder accompanied by physical abuse or another crime such as robbery, kidnapping or committed by someone with a history of violence. To begin with, women commit fewer murders – and they certainly commit fewer of these murders that society considers more heinous in the sense of being accompanied by other acts. Women are almost always killing someone they know, not a stranger, and it may be their only violent crime in their life.”