Lewis Conway Jr, known for fighting for criminal justice reform, dies

The Patton Lane apartment complex looks different from August 4, 1991. The courtyard swimming pool is filled in, and it has a fresh coat of paint — but retired Austin Police Officer Dennis Farris can still see it clearly. 

"I'm almost 60, and it's stuck with me since I was 28 years old." said Farris, whose birthday is Monday. 

Farris, then a rookie Austin police officer, responded to his first killing at the complex. "When I got there, I was the only one there." 

He said a young man ushered him inside an apartment where another young man lay on the floor. He had been stabbed. 

"You can tell he's dying. I leaned down, I said ‘What happened?’ And he goes, ‘He stabbed me.’ And I go, ‘What?’ He goes, ‘He stabbed me.’ He pointed outside. And I looked outside and I thought, ‘Nah,’ I said, ‘What?’ I asked him again, ‘Who stabbed you?’ He goes, ‘He did.’ I go, ‘The guy standing outside?’ and he goes, ‘Yes, that guy right there stabbed me.’ And then he went out. He went unconscious."

The young man was taken to a hospital where he died. "I'm the last person he spoke to, you know, and that's one of the things that weighs on you for the rest of your life." said Farris. 

Farris arrested the other man on scene, identified as Lewis Conway Jr. "I'm thinking to myself, you don't just stab somebody and stay there." he noted. 

It was a fight between former schoolmates over drugs. Conway said he was a dealer and the victim an addict. Conway claimed the young man had stolen drugs from him. The two got into an argument when he tried to take them back. 

Conway spent 8 years in Texas prisons and 12 on parole for voluntary manslaughter. He ran for Austin City Council in 2018 —making him the first formerly incarcerated person in Texas to have their name on an electoral ballot

"Lewis was a barrier breaker." said Taylor Pendergrass of the ACLU. 

This week the Reform Alliance, a criminal justice reform organization, confirmed Conway died. 

"I had mixed emotions about it because the, you know, the emotion that here's a guy who was arrested for murder, went to prison, turned his life around and was doing good things and he died. And so now we don't have that person doing good things." said Farris. 

After Conway’s council run he took his advocacy work to the ACLU where he worked as a national campaign strategist alongside Pendergrass. "I think his legacy is one of joy and hope and optimism," he said. 

Pendergrass, who calls his former colleague and friend a "giant in the criminal justice reform movement," says he was also a loving father and partner. 

Conway and Farris have provided differing accounts of what happened on August 4 — and though Farris is still angry a young man’s life was taken, he finds comfort knowing two souls were not lost that day. 

"We've lost that peace. We've lost somebody who truly was trying to make amends for what he did." he said.