DALLAS, Texas – It was a hot day for an exhumation – a Friday afternoon in September, when summer refused to take its dying breath.
The witnesses gathered in a room on the fifth floor of the Frank Crowley Courts Building in the city where a president had been assassinated and two goliath newspapers had once fiercely competed.
Only one of those present had any indication of why they were there. The others – the county’s evidence clerk, two representatives of the Dallas County district attorney’s office and a Dallas defense lawyer – only knew that a judge had signed a court order that required them to be notified. The court order was on behalf of a community newspaper an hour-and-a-half’s drive away.
As with virtually anything that has been buried for 15 years, there were hints of the ravages of time. The reel-to-reel 911 tape from the Rowlett Police Department had not rested in peace. At some point after it had been interred in a cardboard box, tape at the front end had slipped loose from its spool, as if some unknown force had tried to prevent the horrors of June 6, 1996, from being repeated.
The bearer of the court order turned his attention instead to a cassette recording that had been made from the reel-to-reel tape in the summer of ‘96. It had been entered into evidence by two court-appointed lawyers who ultimately were replaced by a high-powered attorney with a name as big as his retainer fee.
The cassette had been played at a July ‘96 bond hearing, as a media frenzy swirled around the suburban housewife and elementary school room mother dubbed “Dallas’ Susan Smith.” The moniker was a reference to a South Carolina mother who a year earlier had been found guilty of driving her car into the dark waters of a lake, her two little boys strapped inside their car seats. The last face they saw was their mother’s.
The bearer of the court order made a copy of the cassette recording, and the parties went their separate ways. The clerk sealed the boxes and reinterred them in the evidence vault before heading home for the weekend.
That night, at a newspaper office 70 miles away, the ghosts of the Darlie Lynn Routier case sprang to life.
state’s exhibit 18E
The five-minute, 44-second 911 call that helped send Darlie Routier to death row made for a chaotic recording. There is a hysterical Routier claiming that an intruder stabbed her and her two oldest sons, Devon, 6, and Damon, 5, and a 911 operator trying to communicate simultaneously with Routier and first responders.
The Hood County News in Granbury, which obtained the court order, forwarded the cassette version of the 911 call to the Texas Center for Community Journalism (TCCJ) in Fort Worth. The newspaper is underwriting the TCCJ’s statewide initiative examining the justice system in Texas. The TCCJ’s Executive Director, Tommy Thomason, forwarded the recording to Russell Scott, an instructor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media at Texas Christian University (TCU).
Scott was asked to hone in on an exclamation uttered twice by Routier near the end of the recording, as the 911 dispatcher told her that an officer was at her front door.
Scott, Thomason said, was given no hint of what the prosecution’s transcript claimed Routier was saying, nor was he told what anyone else thought she might have been saying.
Several days after receiving the recording, Scott reported his findings. Even with his audio enhancement skills, he could only make out the final word of Routier’s brief exclamation.
Scott’s assessment proved no intentional attempt by the prosecution to mislead the jury in Routier’s murder trial, nor did it provide slam-dunk proof that she is innocent. In fact, it may bear little significance as far as solid evidence is concerned.
The only significance may be why the Hood County News got the court order for the tape to begin with.
a plea from death row
From the start of the HCN’s communications with Routier and with her mother, Darlie Kee of Wills Point, mother and daughter pleaded for the newspaper to get a copy of the 911 reel-to-reel tape, or the version that had been entered into evidence by Routier’s court-appointed attorneys, Doug Parks and Wayne Huff.
In a letter from the Mountain View prison unit in Gatesville postmarked the day before the court order was executed, Routier repeated her plea and reiterated that there was a discrepancy in what the prosecution’s audio expert had claimed was said during the call and what she recalls having said.
“I feel it would be an eye opener to the public to compare it to the state’s paid expert’s version,” Routier wrote about the recording.
“When I was at the sink in the kitchen getting towels wet I was also talking on the phone with 911. There was blood everywhere. When I turned around to take the towels to put on my babies, I could see my throat slit open in the big mirror above the wine rack. Up to that point, I didn’t know my throat had been slit. That’s when I cried out something like, ‘Oh, my God, he cut my throat’… or very close to that.”
Dallas County prosecutors claimed that Routier slit her own throat, inflicting a superficial wound, as she staged a crime scene to disguise her guilt in the stabbing deaths of her sons. The boys had been sleeping on the living room floor in front of the television, while their mother slept on a nearby sofa. Routier’s husband, Darin, and their 8-month-old son, Drake, were asleep upstairs.
Routier’s claims of wetting towels to put on her bleeding sons was backed up by her husband’s testimony. A Rowlett police officer, however, testified that she did not follow his instructions to help when he arrived at the scene and found that one of the children was still alive. Crime scene photos and police video show bloody towels on the floor.
Routier’s throat was slashed to within 2 millimeters of her carotid artery, according to testimony in her trial. Though she is right-handed, the trajectory of the knife cut was more indicative of someone else inflicting the wound, according to the court testimony of forensic pathologist Dr. Vincent DiMaio.
The state spent more than $10,000 for audio experts with Graffiti Productions, Inc., in Dallas to clarify the frenzied recording and create a transcript. It is 11 pages, and was entered into evidence by the Dallas County D.A.’s office as State’s Exhibit 18E.
On page 10, at the 05.23.05 time mark, there begins this exchange between Routier and the dispatcher, as an officer is arriving at the family’s front door.
Routier: “…there’s nothing touched…”
Dispatcher: “…ok, ma’am…”
Routier: “…there’s nothing touched… Oh my God…”
Seconds earlier, Routier had told the dispatcher that she had touched a bloody knife and picked it up, possibly ruining the chance to get the fingerprints of the intruder. Here is the exchange, according to the prosecutor’s transcript:
Routier: “… They left a knife laying on…”
Dispatcher: “…there’s a knife… don’t touch anything…”
Routier: “I already touched it and picked it up…”
Seconds later, Routier says: “…his knife was lying over there and I already picked it up… God… I bet if we could have gotten the prints maybe…”
Prosecutors honed in on that statement during Routier’s trial as an indication of her guilt, claiming that no mother in that situation would have thought to be concerned about accidentally destroying critical evidence.
Routier, in an interview on death row in August, said that prosecutors focused on specific words instead of on the emotion that was evident in her voice.
“What they were doing was blocking out the whole picture of the hysterical mother screaming, trying to get help for her children,” she said.
Though prosecutors had put emphasis on Routier’s comments about the knife, that was not what Scott at TCU focused on. It was the statement “there’s nothing touched,” made just seconds before the tape ended, as Routier was making her way to the front door.
Using present-day technology, Scott came to a different conclusion about that particular portion of the tape. Although he was unable to determine the entirety of what Routier said, he said that the last word in her exclamation was not “touched,” as the state had said.
It was “cut.”
Kathy Cruz is a staff writer at the Hood County News in Granbury. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org