Convicted of capital murder for persuading a family friend to gun her daughter down on a remote dirt road in Russell County on July 5, 2007, Lisa Leanne Graham was sentenced to death Wednesday.
Judge Jacob Walker III imposed that sentence after hearing testimony from psychologist and attorney Glen King, who was hired to conduct a presentencing psychological evaluation on Graham, and from psychiatrist Heather Rowe of East Alabama Mental Health, who said she has been treating Graham since February 2013.
The evaluation was to determine whether Graham had any mental illness or other condition that would make her ineligible for the death penalty.
King testified his evaluation showed Graham is not mentally deficient and has no defect that would keep her from understanding the consequences of her actions. He added, though, that his tests showed Graham had an IQ of 77, indicating she likely would not in advance think through her actions like someone who scored higher.
He said his evaluation revealed Graham scored low in “leisure and social activities,” meaning game-playing, travel and establishing friendships beyond immediate family. In that regard, she was “well below average,” King said.
When Russell County District Attorney Ken Davis asked whether Graham had been “malingering” or faking symptoms, King replied that he did not believe Graham tried to fake test responses. But he thought she had exaggerated her mental issues, embellishing psychiatric symptoms.
Also under Davis’ questioning, King acknowledged Graham was functional, having kept accounts balanced for her family business, having been literate and computer literate, and having pursued genealogical research as a hobby.
Rowe testified she found Graham suffered from recurring and severe depression and had “borderline personality disorder.” She did not elaborate on the latter.
Online, the National Institute of Mental Health posts that borderline personality disorder is “a serious mental illness marked by unstable moods, behavior, and relationships,” and involves “problems with regulating emotions and thoughts; impulsive and reckless behavior; unstable relationships with other people.”
As testimony concluded, Davis argued nothing precluded Walker’s giving Graham the death penalty.
Graham’s lead attorney Margaret Young Brown countered that King’s evaluation showed Graham had “borderline intellectual functioning” that casts doubt on her capacity to take reasonable actions.
She also called Walker’s attention to previous testimony by Graham’s son Kevin “Boo” Graham Jr., who told the judge that since his sister’s death, the only immediate family he has left are his mother, father and grandmother.
His mother’s execution would leave only the father and grandmother: “It wouldn’t be long for the rest of them to be gone, and then I’d have nobody,” he said.
A jury convicted Lisa Graham March 5, and Walker III initially set a sentencing date of May 1, but then postponed it so Graham could be evaluated. Walker noted then that Graham had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and was taking medications prescribed for schizophrenia.
Wednesday’s sentencing is not the end of the story, as Graham already has asked for a new trial and will appeal to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. That process will add new chapters to what even veterans of the criminal justice system found to be a sordid and surreal story of a mother whose jealousy and disdain for her daughter led to a cold-blooded murder late at night on Bowden Road near Pittsview.
Graham was convicted of persuading longtime family worker Kenneth Walton to kill her 20-year-old daughter Stephanie Shea Graham, who went by Shea. Walton said the mother met him at the Columbus Public Library on the evening of July 7, 2007, and loaned him her pistol for the job.
He later caught up with Shea at a Victory Drive gas station, where she left her car with friends and rode off in Walton’s pickup truck. He took her on a long, night drive down Alabama Highway 165 before pulling off on Bowden Road so they could relieve themselves.
When she got out to squat beside the truck’s open passenger door, he pulled out the pistol and shot her in the head from the driver’s seat, then got out, walked around the truck and shot her again and again.
He left her half-nude, bullet-riddled body where it lay, and drove away. Asked in court how his deadly betrayal of a young woman who trusted him made him feel, he replied, “I felt normal.”
Because witnesses saw Shea leave the gas station with Walton, investigators focused on him immediately. He confessed, and told them of the mother’s involvement, particularly of the pistol he had returned to her the day after the shooting.
Lisa Graham then incriminated herself when authorities came looking for the gun. She had given it to an elderly neighbor she knew as “Papa” to clean, but told sheriff’s investigators she didn’t know where it was, and allowed them futilely to search her house before her husband told them “Papa” might have it.
Finding ample evidence of her involvement, investigators charged her with murder, and Davis announced he would seek the death penalty.
But five years passed before the case finally came to trial — the first time. Davis said Wednesday that the first delay resulted from courthouse renovation that made the building unsafe for holding a death-penalty trial.
Walton pleaded guilty June 14, 2012, and was sentenced to life in prison. Graham’s trial was set for the following fall.
But after jury selection and some initial testimony, then-Circuit Judge George Greene abruptly declared a mistrial on Sept. 25, 2012, saying he could no longer preside because of his failing health.
When prosecutors pursued a second trial, Graham’s defense team appealed, claiming Greene could have continued the trial, and to try Graham again would constitute double-jeopardy. During testimony in that appeal, witnesses said Greene had multiple health issues, and had been falling asleep in court, even snoring.
Greene retired in December 2013, and died Jan. 1, 2014.
After the Alabama Court of Appeals rejected the defense double-jeopardy arguments on Oct. 17, 2013, Graham’s attorneys appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court. It turned them down on Aug. 8, 2014.
Meanwhile other Russell County judges recused themselves from presiding at Graham’s next trial. Walker, a Lee County Circuit Court judge, was appointed to fill in.
Jury selection in the second trial began Feb. 17, with witness testimony starting the following week.
That testimony showed Graham repeatedly had remarked to witnesses that Shea was ruining her life, and she would kill her daughter if she could. The daughter was facing aggravated assault charges related to a drive-by shooting in Columbus, and Graham feared she would flee town and leave her parents responsible for her $100,000 bond.
Walton testified he lured Shea into his pickup the night she died with the promise of providing her a vehicle in which to run away.
Graham’s attorneys would not comment after Wednesday’s sentencing, but Davis did.
“This is a case in which the death penalty was called for,” the prosecutor said, adding, “This was a woman who opportuned, cajoled, threatened another individual over the course of months to murder her biological child, to take her down into the darkness of Russell County, Alabama, on a dirt road and shoot her five times.”
With Graham’s appeals pending, much work remains to be done, he said.
“This is really the beginning of a capital case,” Davis said. “A capital case calls for automatic appeals. Those appeals will go up on both levels, both the federal level and the state level. No one can say what will happen on appeal. It’s a process the attorney general of Alabama will be involved in, and we will certainly be current with it.”