A well-funded state machine claimed Darlie Routier murdered her two little boys and slit her own throat. Costly DNA tests might prove otherwise — but even if she could afford it, the state might not allow it.
Mesquite, Texas — Darlie Kee settles into a chair at the Salt Grass Steak House by Town East Mall, blending in with the after-church crowd and a large group noisily celebrating a birthday.
Fifteen years ago, the Wills Point resident and mother of death row inmate Darlie Routier might have been instantly recognizable. Her picture was in the papers. She was appearing on national talk shows. And there was that time she was called trailer trash in front of a bank of TV cameras by Dallas County First Assistant District Attorney Norm Kinne outside the Kerr County courthouse.
It is a drizzly Sunday afternoon in late August — 12 days after Kee’s daughter Routier sat for her first media interview in four years at the Mountain View prison unit in Gatesville. “It’s like you’re trapped in a nightmare you can’t get out of,” Routier had said, as a guard stood watch nearby. She has always maintained her innocence.
Kee was in her mid-40s when her daughter was sent to death row; she’s 60 now. At Salt Grass, she orders a chicken dish, mindful that anti-depressants can cause weight gain.
In the years since she buried grandsons Devon and Damon and watched a jury of strangers pass judgment on her daughter, Kee has soldiered on with medication as her armor. Sleep eludes her, so there have been more doctor’s visits, more prescriptions and, just recently, a sleep study. The medical bills, trips to the prison in Gatesville and the need to make regular deposits into her daughter’s commissary account are gifts from the state that keep on giving.
Kee sometimes finds comfort in church, when she’s not too depressed to go. But it’s hard not to be angry at God and difficult, too, to see well-loved children dressed in their Sunday best. Sometimes she has had to flee the house of God because demons pursue her, even there.
The modest financial security that Kee once had from years of hard work at a communications company evaporated when Rowlett police arrested Routier in July 1996 and charged her with murder. Kee siphoned funds from her 401(k) and used mortgage money to hire big-gun Dallas attorney Doug Mulder to fight for her daughter’s life.
“I told him if he wanted any more (money), I was going to have to sleep on his couch,” Kee said.
When Mulder lost the case, he moved on to other clients. Kee was left to cope with multiple, crippling losses.
But it wasn’t just Kee who paid a price for justice only to experience buyer’s remorse. Family members sold possessions, pilfered savings, dipped into college funds.
To Routier’s family, the case built against her by the state made little sense. But then, as they eventually came to believe, little in the justice system does.
“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”
The date was June 6, 1996. Six-six-six. An evil number tied forever to an evil act, but one committed, Kee and her daughter insist, by an unknown intruder who fled into the night, taking with him stolen lives. Devon was about to turn 7. Damon was 5. Darlie was 26.
A investigator aiding the Rowlett Police claimed to have figured out within minutes of arriving on the scene that the murders had been an inside job. Kee says that Rowlett cops who were sent to 5801 Eagle Drive at 2:30 a.m. by a dispatcher who was trying to calm a hysterical Darlie arrived to a bloody scene they were ill-prepared to handle. One, she claims, threw up in the bathroom.
The boys were sleeping on the floor in the living room when they were mortally stabbed. Their mother was sleeping on a nearby sofa. Darin Routier was within earshot – upstairs asleep with his and Darlie’s eight-month-old son, Drake. Darin came running when he heard his wife screaming.
Kee believes that a snap judgment by an investigator with questionable skills resulted in Rowlett cops looking only at her daughter as the suspect. They and prosecutors claimed that blood evidence and other signs pointed to Darlie Routier as the culprit. Police arrested her four days after television news stations carried footage of Darlie Routier smiling and smacking on gum as she sprayed Silly String on her sons’ shared grave in celebration of Devon’s seventh birthday.
What the cameras didn’t show was Routier and other family members grieving during a somber ceremony just prior to the birthday celebration.
Kee said that when her daughter was arrested at the Rowlett Police Department where she and Darin had been summoned for another round of questioning, officers high-fived each other.
Sitting inside the Mesquite restaurant, as another birthday celebration takes place behind her, Kee remembers how childlike and naive her daughter had been when she emerged from one of the interview sessions at the Rowlett police department and sat on her waiting mother’s lap.
“They’re helping us, Mom,” she had said.
Justice put to the test
As with any death row inmate, Routier’s appeals will eventually run their course, and then the state will schedule her execution.
She has been on death row for almost 16 years – two years longer than Karla Faye Tucker. In February 1998, Tucker became the first woman to be executed in Texas since 1863. She was put to death almost exactly one year after a visibly distraught Routier arrived on death row, an armed guard at each elbow.
In June 2008, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted Routier new DNA testing on blood stains on clothing, hairs and dried flakes of a substance found near the garage of the Eagle Drive home. Her previous appeals had been denied, but state law allows for post-conviction DNA testing in some cases.
Last year, the Legislature adopted changes to Chapter 64 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which deals with forensic DNA testing. Amendments include court hearings to determine whether a person might not have been convicted had DNA results been available during their trial.
Houston-area attorney Richard Burr said that Mulder — Routier’s trial lawyer — “should have asked for the assistance of forensic experts who would have recommended further examination of the prosecution’s DNA testing, but didn’t.”
“There was a lot he failed to do,” said Burr, who has been involved in several high profile cases, including that of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. “There was a pretty broad and deep ineffective assistance of counsel claim against [Mulder] that includes not getting forensic experts to help with many aspects of the case.”
Alleged mistakes in Routier’s trial are detailed in a 58-page Writ of Habeas Corpus filed in a U.S. District Court in San Antonio on Routier’s behalf. Such writs are to investigate whether someone has been illegally imprisoned.
To date, there have been just under 50 exonerations in Texas from post-conviction DNA testing, and 300 nationwide. According to published reports, Dallas County has seen more post-conviction DNA exonerations than any county in the nation since 2001.
Routier and Kee said that it would cost about $200,000 to test everything they would like to have tested from the crime scene. Routier noted that DNA technology has advanced significantly since 1996, and readings can be gleaned even from the trace oils on human skin.
Dallas attorney Stephen Cooper, who has been working on Routier’s appeals pro bono ever since her conviction, said that some state-level DNA testing is currently being done, and that Routier will be able to reapply to the federal courts for DNA testing once the results from the state’s tests are in. He added that having money for DNA testing doesn’t mean that courts will allow a DNA “fishing expedition.”
Jeff Blackburn, founder of the Innocence Project of Texas, believes that no expense should be spared in cases where DNA tests could prove whether someone is guilty or innocent.
“They spend enough money to put somebody in. They should be spending an equal amount to see if they should be getting someone out,” he said.
Though the years-long court processes on DNA testing staves off an execution date — it can also be prolonging the false imprisonment of people who are innocent. Said Kee: “They rushed her in seven months to a false conviction, and they drag these poor defendants through mud and hell and take their good old time.”
Kee said her husband Bob believes money would make a difference in his stepdaughter’s case and commented that “if we win the lottery, Darlie’s coming home for sure.”
“If I had a penny for all the tears I’ve shed,” Kee added, “I wouldn’t have any financial problems.”
Odd that the name of the street that leads into the Mountain View unit in Gatesville is Ransom Road. Routier’s family feels that they’ve been paying ransom to the state for 16 years.
Reflecting back on June 6, 1996, Routier, now 42, says: “It was just an ordinary day. I had talked to my Dad that day because we were fixing to fly [to Pennsylvania] for my grandparents’ 50th anniversary. Devon’s birthday was planned that week. Invitations were sent out. Presents were bought.”
Within minutes, under a Texas moon, everything changed.
People are not as safe and secure as they want to think, warns Routier, the scar on her throat visible above the collar of her white prison jumpsuit.
“If this could happen to me,” she says, “it could happen to anybody else.”
Only once during the two-hour interview do Routier’s eyes fill with tears. It’s when she’s talking about Drake, now a strapping 17-year-old.
“I used to dream of walking out of prison and running to him and picking him up,” Routier says. “But now, he’s going to be picking me up. He’s six-two.”
When the interview is over, Routier remains in her chair behind glass and concrete, patiently waiting for someone to come for her.
Outside, grounds keepers in carts motor on to their next task, driving past the visitors parking area where Routier’s family and friends make regular pilgrimages. Guards stand watch in towers. Others walk to or from their vehicles on the staff parking lot. From one wafts the mournful voice of Waylon Jennings.
“Amanda, light of my life. Fate should have made you a gentleman’s wife.”
Kathy Cruz is a staff writer for the Hood County News in Granbury. She can be reached at [email protected]