Probing Texas justice takes up weekends, holidays

July 13, 2013

Towering pine trees along Interstate 20 indicate that my destination is finally near after 3 ½ hours on the road. I am in Northeast Texas, near Tyler (the “Rose Capital of the World”) and the piney woods of Tyler State Park. In the outlying community of Lindale, I take an exit at U.S. 69, and pull into a combination Dairy Queen and Chevron station.

At first, I don’t recognize the man standing outside the DQ’s doors as former FBI Special Agent Lloyd Harrell. Almost exactly nine years have passed since I last saw him.

The man who had been known to the Dallas press as “Crimefighter” is wearing shorts, a tan H&H Argentina Outfitters ball cap and a white T-shirt that says Bimini Big Game Club.

He is holding a manila folder containing memos from back when he had been hired to join Darlie Routier’s defense team as a licensed private investigator in 1996, when she was about to go on trial for the murders of her two oldest sons. By that time, Harrell had retired from the FBI.

We settle into a booth by glass windows that face onto the Interstate.

It is the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and I am not as prepared for the meeting as I would have liked.

For the past 10 days, I have helped to cover the aftermath of a tornado that took six lives in Hood County. Rest had been short. I had tossed clothing into a suitcase, thrown notebooks and a digital recorder onto the front passenger seat of the Nissan Altima I had purchased two weeks earlier and hit the highway with a this-will-just-have-to-be-good-enough attitude.

I had purchased the new car for two reasons: my Ford Escape had 121,000 miles on it; and Darlie Routier. I needed reliable wheels if I was going to pursue – sometimes on dark, lonely highways – a story that I had come to accept was not going to let me go.

injustice revisited

In the booth at the DQ, I spend the next 4 ½ hours listening to why a former FBI special agent had come to view the case of a 27-year-old Rowlett housewife with a slit throat as the most unfair criminal trial he has ever seen.

I pay no mind to diners that come and go, though they probably view us as a curiosity.

In the center of the table is the digital recorder, standing upright in its plastic stand. I am scribbling notes.

Crimefighter is reading aloud memos from back when the Dallas County D.A.’s noose was tightening around a young mother who hadn’t had so much as a parking ticket on her record. Anyone eavesdropping hears references to murdered children, missing underwear and cast-off blood stains.

At times, Crimefighter touches my leg or reaches across the table to clasp my hand. He is not flirting. He is showing me why touch is important to an investigator trying to get to the truth. Involuntary movements of the body are honest, even if the words coming from the person’s mouth are not.

He was never able to have that kind of contact with Routier. At the Dallas County Jail, she had been kept behind a glass barrier. During her monthlong trial, she was made to wear shackles. By the end of each day, her ankles were bleeding.

Crimefighter and I talk about the Rowlett cops having claimed that Routier kept changing her story, which they believed indicated her guilt.

I think of a story I had written, just that week, about a man who was killed along with his mother-in-law when the tornado blew them 300 yards from where the mother-in-law’s house had stood.

The man’s wife had been with them, but survived. In the story was this quote from her son about her recollection of the chain of events: “She seems to remember a little bit more every time she retells it.”

under a texas moon

It is after 9 p.m. when I hit the road again, this time for Waco, where I am to meet the next day with attorney Walter “Skip” Reaves to talk about his work with the Innocence Project of Texas. Reaves had represented Cameron Todd Willingham, whose 2004 execution is now generally accepted as the state’s killing of an innocent man.

S.H. 31 from Smith County to McLennan County is a dark, mostly desolate highway that takes me through Athens and Corsicana.

It was in Corsicana that arson investigators came to the conclusion that Willingham had not only set the fire that killed his three small daughters, but had even poured an accelerant on their bedroom floor in the shape of a pentagram.

In July 2010 – six years after Willingham’s execution – a four-person panel of the Texas Forensic Science Commission acknowledged that state and local arson investigators had relied on “flawed science” when they determined that the fire had been intentionally set.

Heading to Waco, the drive is as long as the one to Lindale earlier that day. A full moon stays stubbornly, insistently, just over my left shoulder the entire way.

Alone with my thoughts, I remember Crimefighter’s comment about having spent years “howling at the moon” over the troublesome case that refuses to give him peace. When the sun goes down, a blonde woman and two bloody children pay him a call, appearing from the shadows.

Over my shoulder, gossamer clouds appear to gently stroke the lunar orb, like a child persistently poking its mother’s shoulder, insistent that attention be paid.

“Mommy.”

Routier claims that she first became conscious that night when 5-year-old Damon, mortally wounded and with just minutes to live, poked her on the shoulder.

“Mommy.”

The clock on my iPhone clicks midnight as the Altima’s headlights illuminate a sign telling me that I am now entering McLennan County.

Greg Davis’ territory.

The former Dallas County assistant district attorney – now an assistant D.A. in McLennan County – is the reason behind the research project on death penalty cases that I am about to undertake. He had prosecuted Routier during his Dallas tenure.

The Waco Tribune-Herald’s report that Davis had helped put 20 people on death row had not held much context for me. After all, Dallas is a big county, with a lot of crime. But when I mentioned Davis’ track record in a phone conversation with a representative of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, his reaction was one of great concern.

waco and waylon

Drawing closer to Waco, where I hope to find a motel room that I had not had the time to reserve, I turn up the volume on the well-worn Waylon Jennings CD. I had purchased it nine months earlier, after hearing the song “Amanda” wafting from the open windows of a vehicle as I left women’s death row in Gatesville after meeting with Routier.

The lights of the Baylor University campus and Interstate 35 appear through my windshield as “Just to Satisfy You” begins to play.

“Someone’s gonna get hurt before you’re through. Someone’s gonna pay for the things you do.”

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