“I was in the clouds”

Interview with Barbara Lewis


Barbara Lewis on a recent visit with her son, Robert Gattis
By: Marlene Martin

Robert Gattis won a commutation of his death sentence to life without the possibility of parole just days before his January 20, 2012 execution date. Robert’s lawyers mounted a strong clemency campaign, focusing on Robert’s troubled childhood and showing how it impacted Robert’s behavior. Another point of emphasis was the fact that Robert had for many years expressed remorse over killing his then-girlfriend Shirley Slay during a “crime of passion.” 

Delaware CEDPers, along with other abolitionists, worked hard to win Robert’s clemency. Barbara Lewis is Robert’s mom and a longstanding abolitionist. She spoke with Marlene Martin shortly after her son won his commutation.

What was it like to learn that Robert’s sentence was commuted? 

I can’t explain it. It was like I was up in the clouds, but I was not even in a plane. 

When I learned back in November [2011] that the courts had denied Robert’s appeal, I took that information, but I didn’t absorb it. I found this out just before traveling to the CEDP convention. Along the way, I couldn’t feel myself. The reality was that he was going to get a date, and I didn’t want that to upset me. I wanted to go to the conference, to not be alone, to be with people in the movement that could understand, and just go on and do what needed to be done. 

What was it like to talk to Robert after learning the news that he won?

It was bittersweet news. Robert and I had moved to accept the execution three weeks ago when he didn’t win in the courts. 

We weren’t putting a whole lot of stock in the clemency. When Troy lost, we felt like we didn’t stand a chance. Robert’s case was not that well known—it hadn’t been out there that much. And winning clemency has never been done before in Delaware.

What do you mean about the news being “bittersweet“? 

Well, just to not ever have an opportunity to be completely forgiven. 

What can others learn from the fight you’ve been through? 

Never lose hope that change will come in the morning. I hope that stopping Robert’s execution will start to give hope to others. People need to learn that the death penalty is an inhumane punishment. If we can show them that, then we have won something. 

I understand you are frequently at Occupy Delaware. Why is that?

All causes connect to humanity, when we fight for the things we believe in, like what Occupy is fighting for, for homes, for jobs, for the things people need. College students have debts, but there’s no place for them to work. There is something wrong when you live in America, and you can’t find a job. 

How do you think you were able to win commutation? Did the fight for Troy Davis have an impact?

I think the changing mood around the death penalty certainly had an affect—and yes, Troy’s case, certainly. 

The legal team put the case out there in a way to show Robert as an entire person—not just the person who committed this crime. They showed how it was that he could have committed this crime. Until the investigation was done, I didn’t even fully understand it. Now I do. His past affected his development as a man, and it was why he committed this tragic act. Like the minister said at the clemency hearing, Robert is a changed person, and that’s what matters. He’s a different person. 

What do you have to say to anti-death penalty organizations? 

I’m so thankful for the organizations that took shame away from me.

Any final thoughts about the continued fight ahead?

Never quit, and love unconditionally. Find a way to make healing take place. I have crying mothers calling me, some whose sons are doing life sentences. We need to join with them and bring them to a place to be a part of this work.

If you’d like to write to Robert, his address is: Robert Gattis / SBI #188752 / Unit-SHU 17 / JTVCC / 1181 Paddock Rd. / Smyrna, DE 19977

To get in touch with the Delaware Chapter of the CEDP, e-mail jonessa@rowan.edu or call 302-545-7023