Sandy Aitken’s incessant note-taking during the murder trial of her nephew’s wife, Darlie Routier, agitated prosecutors and even the judge. Chronicled in the 405 handwritten pages is her perspective of the controversial trial, including perspectives not chronicled in the official court transcript.
SPRINGTOWN — The turn onto Carter Road from FM 51 North about 11 miles from the Parker County Courthouse is like passing through a time portal.
On this day in early October, the rolling fields and meadows are no longer a parched summer brown, but have not yet exploded into autumn’s brilliant colors. For a brief window of time, it is God’s green country.
The two-lane winding road affords a view of frisky goats and lazy cows. Near the turn that leads to Aunt Sandy’s house, a rooster bravely traverses the worse-for-wear country road, his head jerking forward and back as if he is propelling himself through sheer perseverance.
It is on an offshoot of Carter Road that Sandy Aitken lives with her husband, Robert, and their three dogs. Their home is spotless, with cozy furniture and an antique-style radio sitting on the kitchen island. “Church in the Wildwood” is playing when a visitor comes to call.
Sandy and her husband take seats at the kitchen table to talk about the woman Sandy’s nephew, Darin, married back in the late 1980s. Sandy hasn’t seen her in more than a decade. Premature triplet grandbabies and other happenings in a busy life eventually made it too difficult to travel all the way to women’s death row in Gatesville.
But it all comes flooding back on this Tuesday afternoon, as Sandy spreads the papers that have been tucked away for years inside the hutch by her kitchen table. The conversation involving harsh realities and modern-day crimes clashes with the country decor.
Sandy and her husband had rushed to Dallas on the morning of June 6, 1996, arriving at Baylor hospital just hours after Darlie Routier. Darlie’s little boy, Damon, was in another part of the hospital, in a body bag. His older brother Devon, about to celebrate his seventh birthday, had died on the floor of the family’s home in Rowlett. Both boys had been stabbed repeatedly and viciously. Darlie’s throat was cut, and she had immediately been rushed into surgery upon her arrival at Baylor.
When the police arrested Darlie and charged her with murder despite her claims of an intruder, Sandy promised Darlie that God would take care of her. She told her that right up to the time a jury pronounced her guilty and she was whisked off to death row.
During the month-long trial in Kerrville, Sandy sat in the courtroom every day.
“Sandy, you slipped under their radar,” lead defense attorney Doug Mulder would tell her, referring to prosecutors having banished from the courtroom other family members who were set to testify.
At first, Sandy jotted notes in a spiral notebook as a way to distract herself from what she felt was an atmosphere hostile to Darlie and her family. But then she began recording the proceedings in earnest, as fast as her fingers could move the pen. Mulder, she said, would always tell her how much her note-taking annoyed the Dallas County prosecutors.
Sandy said the judge even told her that she needed to “be careful about your note-taking.” Why he would say such a thing puzzled her, since the courtroom was full of reporters busily scribbling away.
For a while, Sandy thought someone would surely ask for her notes, but no one ever did – even when the court reporter messed up the transcript so badly that she lost her license.
Through the years, Sandy held onto her notebooks anyway, convinced God had told her that someday a reporter would call asking for them.
Then, out of the blue, one did.
The judge rests
When serious problems arose with court reporter Sandra Halsey, no one turned to Sandy for help in reconstructing the trial transcript. She, after all, was not an official court reporter.
Her notes could not be mistaken for a professional record of the proceedings that took place in the Kerr County Courthouse those weeks in early ‘97. They’re handwritten, and are sometimes interrupted with pleas for God’s help. There are notations that have nothing to do with witness testimony, like this one on page 156: “Serious sleeping from judge.”
State District Judge Mark Tolle, according to Sandy’s notes, appeared to fall asleep 16 times as Darlie Routier was on trial for her life.
Brian Stull, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Capital Punishment Project, says that judges play a “crucial” role in trial proceedings because they have to “constantly be making decisions” as evidence is presented in court.
“There wouldn’t be a baseball game without an umpire, so how can anyone agree with a death sentence in a trial where, effectively, you have no judge?” he said. “You have all these constitutional rights and all these statutory rights – and the judge cannot guarantee that the trial goes fairly if the judge is asleep.”
Combined with the problems with the court reporter’s trial transcript, there might be reason to question the validity of Routier’s trial, he said.
Stull said that the transcript problems combined with the alleged sleeping of the judge “is a really bad combination.”
Of Sandy’s notes, he said: “One of the things that concern me about this case is that the notes seem to reflect that this is happening repeatedly throughout the trial. Each time it happens, it just increases the concern and makes it less likely that she (Sandy) was mistaken. The more it happened, the more I think anyone would be concerned.”
Tolle died in 2007.
On some of Sandy’s notations about the judge sleeping, she wrote the time at which he appeared to nod off. On page 105, it was at 4:45 p.m.; on page 108, it was 9:15 a.m.; on page 111, it was 9:40 a.m., on page 121, it was 2 p.m. and on page 155, it was 1:35 p.m.. On page 48, she wrote this: “Judge is sleeping again. What a job.”
There were two such notations on page 138, written as Rowlett Police Lt. James Walling was testifying about his handling of bloody crime scene evidence, some of which he said he put in his car.
One of issues that Darlie and her family have with the Rowlett Police Department’s investigation was the way officers handled the blood evidence. They claim that officers mishandled evidence by not placing bloody articles of clothing and other material in separate bags.
In the midst of Walling’s testimony on that very topic, Sandy wrote this: “Judge seriously sleeping.”
She underlined the words twice.
Dreams of justice
Sandy and the reporters were not the only ones scribbling away in the courtroom at the Kerr County courthouse. At the defense table, Darlie was, too. During breaks, members of the defense team would slip Sandy the letters Darlie wrote to her as witness after witness pushed her ever closer to the execution chamber.
“I will never turn from God,” was how she ended one letter, in girlish, looped cursive.
Robert Aitken said that what happened to Darlie “affects the whole family.”
“For years, every time I would pass a cop, I would start to shake,” he said. “I would think, ‘If he pulls me over, am I going to jail?’”
Among the memories of Darlie that are strewn on the kitchen table at Aunt Sandy’s and Uncle Robert’s house is a big blue Bible. It has the name “Darlie Routier” engraved in the lower right corner. Darlie, Sandy said, gave it to her to keep until she can someday reclaim it.
In an interview from death row two months before Aunt Sandy removed her trial notes from the kitchen hutch, Darlie spoke of the judgments that were levied against her when her life hung in the balance.
“At the time, I was called materialistic. I dyed my hair blond. I liked to shop. I had a boob job. I’m like, OK, if that is the criteria for a murderer, then 90 percent of the women in Dallas would be [killers]. It really hurt, because I felt like I had to really defend myself for those things.
“I was 20-something years old. Of course I liked to wear nice clothes and do my hair, but that stuff didn’t matter to me. Anybody that was around me will tell you the same thing.
“Darin and I, before we ever started making money, we were practically poor. We lived in a little apartment, no furniture hardly, just barely making it. But we were so happy. We were so happy. “
The autumn light is a golden hue as the visitor heads back toward the entrance to the time portal. A dog lopes up a long driveway. A woman in a shirt the color of pumpkins maneuvers a riding lawn mower.
The plucky rooster is again where it doesn’t belong. Its head thrusts forward and back, trusting that sheer perseverance will help it traverse perilous terrain, arriving safely on the other side.
Cruz can be reached at [email protected]