Defending Darlie

Torrential rains lashed the crowds that had gathered outside the state prison in Huntsville, two disparate camps that had come to noisily support and prayerfully protest the execution by lethal injection of convicted murderer David Wayne Spence in April 1997.

Inside the death chamber, the 38-year-old beefy, blue-eyed Spence would have the last word. As he had done consistently over the years, he insisted he had nothing to do with the stabbing deaths of three teenagers in a Lake Waco park 15 years earlier. To the anguished victims' family members who had come to witness his execution, Spence said that, though he was innocent, he hoped they would find some solace in his death.

Next, Spence turned to the five people he had invited to watch him die. He professed his love and gratitude to ex-wife June and their son Jason, to his brother Steven, and girlfriend Rita Moran. Then, just before being strapped to the gurney and intravenously fed the poisonous cocktail that would collapse his lungs and stop his heart, Spence delivered his final farewell and thanks to his last guest--Brian Pardo, a middle-aged millionaire from Waco.

A less likely friend and defender of the condemned you'd be hard-pressed to find.

A stranger to Spence just five months before, insurance impresario and one-time congressional candidate Pardo had become the prisoner's most vocal defender. He spent countless hours and thousands of dollars trying to convince everyone from Gov. George W. Bush and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to state lawmakers and various media outlets that David Spence had been railroaded.

Armed with research collected mostly by a tireless group of federally funded appeals attorneys, Pardo argued that the state had suppressed evidence that pointed to Spence's innocence. He claimed prosecutors built their case against him with spurious forensic evidence and unreliable testimony from jailhouse snitches.

A condemned prisoner could not have asked for a more convincing advocate. Who better to press your case than a card-carrying conservative Republican and death-penalty proponent who had come to Spence's defense reluctantly and with a healthy dose of skepticism? But even Pardo's political connections and lobbying efforts could not save Spence's life. The experience left Pardo's faith in the criminal justice system deeply shaken.

"The system doesn't care about the truth as long as it can get a guilty verdict and demonstrate to the public it's doing its job keeping this a safe place to live," Pardo says.

For his trouble, Pardo received the scorn of his hometown newspaper, which questioned his motives; the enmity of victims'-rights advocates; and a fat libel suit from the deputy sheriff and former prosecutors he accused of conspiring to frame Spence.

He also garnered attention and accolades from the national press, the admiration of death-penalty opponents, and hundreds of requests from condemned prisoners seeking his help. This is how he came to embark on his latest quixotic endeavor--championing the cause of Darlie Routier, the flashy Rowlett mother convicted of stabbing her two young sons to death in June 1996.

Once again, Pardo is convinced that a grave injustice has been done. He does not believe that Routier received a fair trial, because the two lead investigators on the case took the Fifth Amendment shortly after they began testifying, which in effect violated Routier's constitutional right to confront her accusers. Without a confession, motive, or eyewitness, Pardo says, the state mounted a flimsy circumstantial case.

Routier's wounds--the deep cut on her right forearm, the slash to the neck that came within two millimeters of severing her carotid artery, and the deep bruises on her right arm, which she claimed were inflicted by her sons' killer--were too severe to be self-inflicted as prosecutors alleged, he insists. And the nurses' own notes from the hospital where she was treated for her cuts belie their later testimony that Routier was not appropriately emotional over the loss of her sons. Evidence also suggests a second knife that was never recovered was used to kill one of the boys.

In second-guessing the jury, Pardo has had to overlook a substantial body of incriminating evidence--a crime scene that appeared staged, Darlie and husband Darin's inconsistent statements, and her frivolity at the bizarre graveside birthday party for son Devon a week after the murders.

Pardo is not alone in believing the whole truth has yet to come out in the murders of Damon and Devon Routier. But even Darlie's supporters, who agree with Pardo's assessment of the trial, take issue with some of his tactics. He has gone from advocate to armchair detective, hell-bent on solving the case. In the process, he has employed the dubious tools of handwriting, reverse speech, and voice stress analyses to concoct unproven alternative theories about the murders. What's more, he's not shy about sharing them, though not for the record.