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.

A few weeks ago, Pardo paid for Darin Routier to take a polygraph examination, which he subsequently failed. Then Pardo leaked the results to the press, which made great headlines. But observers and legal experts worry that Pardo may have inadvertently undermined Darlie's case by providing ammunition for the prosecution in case of a retrial.

No one questions Brian Pardo's good intentions and generosity. He is funding part of Routier's appeal and is underwriting an investigation into the case. But Pardo has a dangerous tendency toward recklessness, stating suppositions and spinning Hollywood-flavored murder scenarios as if they were fact. Pardo's detractors wonder whether he seriously seeks the truth, or is simply engaged in a midlife Walter Mitty fantasy wherein he gets to play amateur sleuth and would-be savior.

"This is not a hobby," Pardo bristles. "It's a burden. It's gut-wrenching, stressful, frustrating, and extremely serious and not rewarding. There is every reason in the world not to be doing this. And only one reason to do it--justice. If you believe in justice as a concept, then you don't want to see injustice. I can't solve all the world's problems. But maybe I can prevent one innocent woman from being executed for a crime she did not commit."

In searching for a way to describe the impossible predicament in which he finds himself, he borrows a quote from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. "'Consider the case of the ass,'" Pardo says, "'with a burden too heavy to carry and too heavy to throw off.'

"Remember," he adds, "we didn't go looking for these cases; they came looking for us."

Short, stocky and snub-nosed, Brian Pardo is no stranger to controversy. Nor is he one to shrink from criticism or shy away from a good fight.

The son of a sailor, he and his twin brother were born in Pittsburgh 55 years ago while his parents were in the process of relocating to a new Naval base in San Francisco. He grew up in Phoenix and attended Arizona State University, where he majored in business. Dropping out of college after three years, he joined the Army and flew helicopter gunships in Vietnam until a crash sent him to the hospital with five fractured vertebrae.

After leaving the Army, Pardo bounced around the country before settling with his wife in Reno, Nevada, where he started a solar energy company in 1974.

Two years later he moved the company to Waco to be close to Baylor University, which had received an alternative energy research grant from the Department of Energy. Capitalizing on the oil embargoes of the 1970s, American Solar King became "the Sears of residential solar panels," Pardo says. In the 15 months after Pardo's company went public, its stock soared from $3 to $99 a share.

"That's a Hillary Clinton investment," Pardo says.
Pardo made many people, including himself, rich, but within a decade the company declared bankruptcy. Pardo blames his sudden financial reversals on President Reagan, who allowed alternative energy tax credits to evaporate when oil again became cheap.

Solar King's investors who lost big preferred to blame Pardo, though he lost biggest of all--$12 million. In a recent Houston Chronicle story about Pardo, a bigwig in the McLennan County Republican party claimed Pardo caused hard feelings in his hometown by continuing to live large--including buying a home overlooking Lake Waco--while his company was going down the tubes. Pardo insists that he bought his house several years earlier and, in fact, conducted his business affairs with more integrity than most people who go through bankruptcy. He repaid all his creditors and did not liquidate the company until 1990, just about the time he began his next controversial, and highly lucrative, business venture.

"Ghoulish," "morbid," and "vulture," were adjectives used to describe Pardo when he launched what would become the first and largest company in the country to buy and re-sell the life-insurance policies of AIDS patients and others with terminal illnesses. In a transaction known as a viatical settlement, Pardo's Life Partners buys the policies at a discount, giving the dying patient access to a hefty portion of the benefits before they die and giving investors the rest afterward.

For a terminally ill person who can no longer work and whose life savings have been devoured by medical costs, such a transaction can restore some quality of life. Still, time and again Pardo would be disparaged for the unseemly pursuit of "speculating in death."

"I would tell the press, I'm not speculating in death," Pardo counters. "These people are going to die. They're past denial. You're not. They're interested in how they're going to live until they die."

Investors, however, made no apologies, for they were making an average of 19 percent return on their money. Yet in 1992, the Securities and Exchange Commission sued Life Partners, accusing Pardo of violating securities laws in the way that he resells policies to investors. State regulators followed suit, and when one of them called the business "ghoulish and insensitive," Pardo sued him for slander.

Life Partners lost the first legal round, and a disgusted Pardo, tired of the heavy hand of government regulation, decided to run for Congress in 1996. He made it into the runoff election in the Republican primary. A fiscal conservative and social moderate, Pardo lost the nomination to a young candidate who was backed by the Christian Coalition.

But on the legal front, Pardo emerged victorious when a federal appeals court ruled that federal securities law did not cover viatical settlements.

Pardo permanently shelved his political aspirations, but not his desire to keep a watchful eye on the government.

Shortly after his Congressional campaign, the semi-retired Pardo began publishing a newsletter, Capitol Watch, that kept the people on his campaign mailing list apprised of assorted government and public-policy issues. A few months after he began publishing, Pardo was invited to take a tour of the state prison by former professional football player Bill Glass, who ran a prison ministry based in Dallas and was looking for corporate sponsors. Pardo was not interested in backing the ministry, but he thought the prison visit might make good copy for the newsletter.

Morbid curiosity brought Pardo back for a return tour, this time of death row. Asked which inmate he wanted to meet, the only name Pardo knew was David Wayne Spence. He was Waco's most notorious killer, who, along with two accomplices, was convicted of savagely torturing and raping two teenage girls then repeatedly stabbing them and a male friend. Their bodies were found bound and gagged in the woods along Lake Waco, in a spot that Pardo could see from his hilltop house.

A prison spokesman who accompanied Pardo on his visit told him Spence was the one inmate who really frightened him. "Look into his eyes," he said. "He's inhuman."

Pardo was immediately struck by how benign Spence appeared; he was a balding, overweight man who looked utterly harmless.

"I want to talk about my case," Spence said.
Remembering the advice of Bill Glass, who cautioned Pardo not to talk to inmates about their cases because it upsets them, Pardo demurred.

"I'm here to talk about life on death row," Pardo countered.
Spence persisted, and Pardo gave in. Spence told Pardo that he was innocent, which struck Pardo as almost funny.

"David, how many people on death row are innocent?"
"Not very many," Spence replied. "But there are a few, and I'm one of them."
Spence regaled Pardo for almost two hours with a tale of how an unscrupulous lawman and overzealous prosecutors conspired to frame him. Spence left Pardo with these parting words: "Don't believe me; check it out for yourself. If you're interested in justice, rather than politics, at least look into it."

"We picked up Nietzsche's load," Pardo says, "and decided to check it out."
With the help of his company's communications director, John McLemore, a former television investigative reporter, Pardo decided to re-examine the case. They had their work cut out for them and little time to spare. Texas planned to execute Spence in five months.

Pardo began his examination by talking with Spence's first defense attorney, a prominent Waco lawyer who publicly maintained all these years that Spence was innocent. The lawyer's efforts to defend Spence had been severely hamstrung by the prosecution, which refused to hand over evidence beneficial to his client.

The extent of the prosecutorial misconduct would not be discovered until almost a decade after Spence's conviction. That's when Raoul Schonemann, an idealistic young appeals lawyer, inherited the case. A staff attorney with the Texas Resource Center, a federally funded law office--now defunct--that handled appeals for death-row inmates, Schonemann and his colleagues spent six years doggedly defending Spence. In the process they unearthed troubling facts indicating that the case that put Spence on death row was seriously flawed.

Pardo's first visit in Schonemann's cluttered Austin office lasted eight hours, as the lawyer walked Pardo through the complex scenario of the Lake Waco murders and the way a law-enforcement officer and the prosecution went about bringing three suspects to justice.

On July 14, 1982, Waco police found the bloody bodies of Kenneth Franks, 18; Jill Montgomery, 17; and Raylene Rice, 17, at Speegleville Park at Lake Waco. The three were last seen the night before at nearby Koehne Park, a popular hangout on the lake, where Rice's orange Pinto was found abandoned.

The girls were nude, with their hands tied behind their backs. They had been sexually assaulted and stabbed repeatedly, and their throats were slashed. Franks, who was Montgomery's boyfriend, had also been stabbed repeatedly. He was found fully clothed and wearing sunglasses.

One of the most gruesome and shocking murders in Central Texas, it would inspire an award-winning book, Careless Whispers, by Dallas journalist Carlton Stowers, who lionized the lawman who brought Spence to justice, and a made-for-TV movie. The murders bedeviled the Waco police for months. Hundreds of leads poured into police headquarters, and the investigation spawned more than 400 pages of reports. But after 10 weeks, the police still didn't have enough to make an arrest.

Bragging he could solve the murders in a week, cocky narcotics officer Truman Simons asked Waco Police Chief Larry Scott to assign him to the case. Although Scott would later admit in a deposition that he had misgivings about Simons' tendency to form a theory about a case and ignore any evidence that would disprove it, the chief let him have a crack at it.

Simons quickly zeroed in on a Jordanian convenience-store owner named Muneer Deeb, who had reportedly told a witness he was glad Kenneth Franks was dead. Franks had mercilessly taunted the foreigner every time he came by his store to see his friend Gayle Kelley. Kelley worked for Deeb, and the store owner admittedly had a crush on her.

Simons met with Kelley and told her Deeb was a suspect in the murders. Later that night, Kelley called Simons at home to say Deeb had admitted being responsible for the murders. Known for making outrageous comments for shock value, Deeb also told Kelley he was kidding.

Simons arrested Deeb and charged him with the triple homicide. After Deeb passed a three-hour polygraph examination, Chief Scott ordered Simons to release him. Taunted by his fellow officers, Simons resigned from the police department and joined the McLennan County Sheriff's Department as a night jailer, where he continued to pursue the investigation. This was a step down for the 17-year police-department veteran, but there was an upside. The job put Simons in direct, unsupervised contact with inmates. Before long, he was capitalizing on these inmates' eagerness to share information on the murders--truthful or not--in exchange for special treatment.

Simons was sure Deeb masterminded the murders and worked out an elaborate theory that Deeb had hired someone to kill Kelley, but that the killer mistook Jill Montgomery for Kelley.

Simons came to this conclusion after he learned that the convenience-store operator had taken out a $20,000 accidental injury policy on Kelley, who named him as the beneficiary. Simons' murder-for-hire theory had several flaws, however. Deeb paid for similar policies on another employee, plus one for himself and his partner. These policies were cheaper than workman's compensation, Muneer recently explained to the Dallas Observer. And the insurance policy did not pay in the case of murder or suicide, according to Deeb's insurance agent. Besides, Deeb did not need the money--his father was a well-compensated executive with IBM in Saudi Arabia.

Simons held firm to his theory. Now all he had to do was prove it and find the people who actually carried out the murders.

Shortly after he went to work at the jail, Simons thought he had found his culprits. In September 1982, David Wayne Spence and Gilbert Melendez were arrested and jailed for assaulting a young kid with a knife.

Simons thought Spence and Melendez fit the profile of the lake murderers, though neither their names nor descriptions of them and their vehicles ever came up during the previous investigation.

Carlton Stowers, who researched his book for two years, says, "David Spence was pure evil." Pardo insists Spence was not the monster he was portrayed to be. "He was a thug and certainly not the kind of guy you would want to be dating your daughter," Pardo says. "But he was not a killer." He was no angel either. He abused alcohol and had a previous conviction for holding up a Fort Worth convenience store with a hatchet.

Still, there was precious little physical evidence linking Spence and Gilbert Melendez, and Melendez's brother, Tony, whom Simons also suspected, to the Lake Waco murders. Strands of hair, including pubic hair that likely came from the killers, were found on the victims. But an FBI analysis determined that none of the hairs came from Spence or the Melendez brothers.

And there was another problem: In order for Simon's murder-for-hire/mistaken-identity theory to fit Spence, he would have had to mistake Jill Montgomery for Gail Kelley. Although the two women resembled one another, Spence was familiar with what Kelley looked like. He and Kelley had spent time together at Deeb's store, because Spence's girlfriend worked there too.

Truman Simons spent his evenings at the jail talking with inmates in his office, where he allowed them to use the telephone and gave them cigarettes. He let it be known to the inmates that Spence and Gilbert Melendez were suspects in the Lake Waco murders. He eventually helped lay the foundation for the state's case against Spence by extracting statements from these inmates--and eventually from prison inmates as well--saying that they either overheard Spence talking about having killed and tortured the teenagers or that he had confessed his guilt to them outright.

At the same time, Simon told Gilbert Melendez that Spence and Deeb had confessed and implicated him in the murders. This was a lie.

"Simons played a lot of mind games," says Schonemann. "He made it clear that there was a deal to be had. If you didn't get there first, you were going to death row."

In the spring of 1983, Gilbert Melendez finally gave Simons the confession he was seeking. Melendez would later tell lawyer Schonemann that he was afraid if he didn't falsely confess, the state would make a case against him anyway and give him the death penalty. Before he gave the confession, Melendez said, Simons and Vic Feazell, the newly elected McLennan County district attorney, offered him the possibility of immunity from prosecution. (They later confirmed this in depositions.)

Melendez's confession was riddled with errors. He originally wrote that the trio had raped the girls and murdered all three teens in Koehne Park, then took them to Speegleville Park in the back of Spence's white station wagon. When Simons discovered that Spence didn't own that station wagon until weeks after the murders, Melendez wrote another draft--the second of five he would eventually compose during the next two years--saying the bodies had been loaded into Spence's gold Malibu. The FBI dismantled and thoroughly analyzed the car and found no trace of the victims.

Melendez changed his story again, this time claiming Spence stayed with the bodies while he and his brother drove to get his truck to move the bodies. That wasn't possible either. A mechanic would later testify that the truck was miles away at his shop, inoperable with a broken ignition and three flat tires.

When Simons took Melendez to Koehne and Speegleville parks, he was so clueless that Simons had to show him where the three victims had left the orange Pinto and where the bodies were dumped. Schonemann doubts Melendez was purposely playing dumb, because at the time the authorities were dangling the prospect of immunity in front of him. "He had every incentive to tell the truth, had he known it," the lawyer says.

Gilbert Melendez eventually recanted his confession and refused to testify against Spence. But the state used Melendez's version of the killings taking place at one park and ferrying the bodies to the other one throughout all the trials, though it is highly implausible that it happened that way. The police never found a drop of blood or other physical evidence of a murder in Koehne Park. And the 10 people who had been at the park that night and came forward to police never reported hearing screaming, which Melendez said the victims did plenty of.

The state nonetheless tried Spence for capital murder in the death of Jill Montgomery. To physically tie Spence to the murders, the state would show that Spence had inflicted bite marks on the girl's body. The Dallas forensic pathologist who autopsied the bodies apparently overlooked these bite marks, for there is no mention of them in her report. No, the bite marks wouldn't be discovered for some time, until assistant district attorney Ned Butler spotted them on the crime-scene photos while preparing for trial.

Butler turned to Homer Campbell, a New Mexico forensic odontologist and hunting buddy of Butler's. Campbell had the photos of Montgomery's body enlarged. Then he made a mold of Spence's teeth and found that they matched the bite marks almost perfectly.

Schonemann eventually would point out that Campbell had previously misidentified--on the basis of teeth comparison--the remains of a dead woman as those of a missing runaway who subsequently turned up alive.

In addition to Homer Campbell, prosecutors called upon a rogue's gallery of jailhouse snitches, who told the jury eerily similar stories about how Spence had confessed to them about committing the Lake Waco murders. Each witness denied that the state gave them favored treatment in return for his testimony.

The jury convicted Spence and sentenced him to death.
Shortly thereafter, Muneer Deeb was re-arrested and charged with capital murder. By now, the state had an important ace in the hole. With Spence sentenced to death, Gilbert Melendez decided he should start cooperating again with Simons and testify against Deeb, or he could face the same fate as Spence. Tony Melendez also confessed for the same reason, although an investigator for his defense attorney had evidence that Tony was working 100 miles away as a painter in College Station at the time of the murders. The Melendez brothers each received life sentences, but Gilbert claimed that, in return for his testimony, Feazell and Simons had promised to help him make parole the first or second time he was eligible. That meant he might serve as little as seven to 10 years.

In Deeb's trial, the state again relied on inmate testimony. Deeb was convicted and condemned to die.

In a subsequent trial, Spence was convicted of killing Kenneth Franks. At this trial, the prosecution no longer needed the help of inmate stool pigeons. They used Melendez's confession instead, as well as the expert testimony of Homer Campbell.

Two years after David Spence was condemned to die, his mother, Juanita White, received a letter from David Snelson, an inmate who had testified against her son. He told her that he had lied under oath and begged her forgiveness. White excitedly gave a copy of the letter to Spence's defense attorney. He contacted the police. Two days after a memorandum about Snelson's letter circulated the department, White was found sexually assaulted and beaten to death in her home. The next day, her house was broken into again. Nothing was taken, but her personal papers had been ransacked.

No proof exists linking White's death to the investigation and conviction of her son, though Pardo claims his "street sources" say there was a direct correlation. The investigation into her death, however, did bear an uncanny similarity to the one that put her son on death row.

White's murder case was assigned to Waco police officer Jan Price, who developed a suspect--a man who committed a similar murder in Juanita White's neighborhood two months later. But before Price could pursue the case further, she was told that Truman Simons had conducted his own investigation. The district attorney's office was going to try two men he had fingered for the crime--Joe Sydney Williams and Calvin Washington, petty thieves who were almost a decade apart in age and barely knew each other.

Again, Simons used jailhouse snitches to make his case. An inmate testified that he walked past a hotel room in the middle of the night and overheard Williams and Washington implicating themselves in the crime. At least 15 Waco police officers testified for the defense at the trials. They claimed that the most important prosecution witnesses should not be believed.

Officer Price, who testified at the trial for the defense, witnessed Simons instructing one of his jailhouse witnesses to question the "unlucky" suspects. Shortly afterward, the charges against the witness were dropped. In a sworn affidavit, Price wrote: "I have obtained statements from a significant number of witnesses in [the White case], which uniformly attest that Simons offered deals to prospective jailhouse witnesses in order to secure their cooperation, and then created himself the statements which later formed the basis of their testimony in court...

"My experience in the Juanita White murder has convinced me that the prosecution's case against the defendants in this matter was utterly fabricated and that the prosecution knew it and presented it anyway to secure a conviction. As a career law-enforcement officer, I find such actions offensive and unacceptable."

Williams and Washington were convicted of capital murder in separate trials, in which Homer Campbell was the expert witness. He testified that bruises on White's body were bite marks and that they matched the teeth of defendant Williams. During the sentencing phase, Juanita White's other son, Steven Spence, and others argued against imposing the death penalty. The men were sentenced to life instead. Williams managed to get his conviction overturned, and the prosecution declined to retry him. Washington is still in prison.

In light of the Juanita White murder trial, one of the first things Raoul Schonemann did in preparation for Spence's appeal was track down as many inmates as he could who had been called to testify against him. Three of them recanted their testimony outright. Independently of one another, they told the lawyer how the district attorney's office and the sheriff's department had afforded them extraordinary treatment in exchange for their cooperation, including the opportunity to have sex with their girlfriends and wives in the district attorney's office. A former investigator in the district attorney's office confirmed this fact later.

Schonemann also uncovered evidence that many of the inmates were promised help with their pending cases. In suppressed documents, Schonemann uncovered a statement an inmate had written for Simons in which he did not implicate Spence. Several months later the same inmate wrote another statement claiming Spence had confessed his guilt to him. Two weeks later, the inmate was paroled.

Robert Snelson, the prisoner who first contacted David Spence's mother, told Schonemann: "We all fabricated our accounts of Spence confessing in order to try to get a break from the state in our cases."

Schonemann also argued that the state had suppressed hundreds of pages of documents vital to Spence's defense. The state claimed they withheld these police reports because there were no other possible suspects in the Lake Waco murders. "That was patently untrue," says Schonemann.

In the weeks that followed the murders, several witnesses reported that a man named Terry Lee "Tab" Harper, who had been arrested 25 times for assorted assault charges, had bragged about killing three people at the lake. Police confirmed that he made his boasts before news of the murders had been broadcast. Harper was brought in for questioning, but he refused to cooperate. Witnesses who had been at the lake that night reported seeing the victims talking to someone in a van matching a description of Harper's.

The state argued that the information about Harper would not have helped Spence's case, because Harper had provided the police with an alibi. Schonemann never could find such an alibi in police reports, however. The state also claimed he was not a viable suspect, because such violence was not his modus operandi, though he was known to use a knife in committing mayhem. In 1994, Harper stabbed an elderly couple in their home, and the husband subsequently died. When the police came to arrest him, Harper committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest with a shotgun.

To undermine the bite-mark testimony, Schonemann sent the enhanced autopsy photos of the alleged bite marks on Jill Montgomery along with Campbell's analysis to Dr. Thomas Krauss, a leading forensic odontologist who has taught at the FBI National Academy. The dentist concluded that Campbell's methodology in this case "was well outside the thinking in mainstream forensic odontology."

At Krauss' suggestion, Schonemann set up a blind panel of five odontology experts. They were asked to examine the enhanced photos and determine whether the supposed bite marks matched any of five teeth molds, including Spence's. None of the experts said they could determine with any degree of certainty whether the pictures in fact showed bite marks. Only two experts said the pictures came close to matching one dental mold--not the one made of David Spence's teeth, but a mold belonging to a patient of Dr. Krauss'.

None of Schonemann's findings would persuade any of the courts along the appellate process that Spence deserved a new trial. One lower court ruled that the new bite-mark evidence came too late to be considered--a finding that Brian Pardo, among others, found blatantly unfair.

"There is no statute of limitations for murder, but it is outrageous that there is what amounts to a statute of limitations for presenting evidence to prove you are innocent of murder," Pardo says.

Spence's appeal also included several sworn statements from high-ranking Waco police officers who said there was nothing in the two cases that convinced them Spence was guilty.

The state and federal appeals courts found that there were errors made in Spence's capital-murder trials, but they concluded that the errors were harmless. They also conceded that at least several of the inmates who testified had been untruthful; that the confessions of Spence's alleged accomplices had inconsistencies; and that the state withheld evidence from the defense--but none of it was enough to sway them in Spence's favor.

"I think that this was such a notorious and horrible murder case," says one observer, who asked that he not be named, "that politics took over the rule of law."

By the time Brian Pardo agreed to look into Spence's case, almost all of his appeals had been exhausted. Pardo took another stab at scaring up evidence that would prove that the state's case against Spence was flawed. He hired a blood-splatter expert, who concluded that there was no way the bodies of the teenagers had been moved from one park to another after their death, as the state contended.

A state district court judge ignored this latest development, even after several prominent writers asked him to consider halting the execution until he could hold an evidentiary hearing. The writers argued that there were many troubling issues in the case, not the least of which was the fact that Muneer Deeb, the so-called mastermind behind the murder-for-hire/mistaken-identity case, had been exonerated.

In 1992, after spending six years on death row, Deeb, working as his own attorney, successfully convinced the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to overturn his conviction. The court found that an inmate's testimony against Deeb was hearsay and thus inadmissible. The state retried Deeb. Angry that Truman Simons and Vic Feazell never delivered on the promise to get him an early parole, Gilbert Melendez refused to testify again against Deeb. In 1993, a jury in Fort Worth, where the trial had been moved, acquitted Muneer Deeb. Today, he runs a successful transportation company in Dallas.

In 1987, Feazell left the district attorney's office a year into his second term and went to work for Pardo's solar-energy company. The criminal attorney did not fit in the corporate world, Pardo says, and he asked Feazell to leave after about a year. Pardo insists his falling-out with Feazell had nothing to do with his becoming involved in the Spence case.

Feazell did not return calls for this story. Simons, now a lieutenant in the sheriff's department, refuses to comment on the Spence case, or on the libel suit he, Feazell, Butler, and Campbell filed against Pardo earlier this year.

All Simons will say is: "[Spence's case has] been up and down the appellate system several times. If something goes wrong, surely they'll find it. At the last minute the case went before the governor and the parole board, and no one effectively convinced these folks that Spence was framed. We have to rely on these folks right now."

It was Pardo who met with Gov. Bush's general counsel and the director of the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole on Spence's behalf. "Both men couldn't believe the Spence case had gotten this far," says Pardo. "I think they truly wanted to help, but it wasn't politically expedient. The state is a bunch of people who don't want to be caught making a mistake."

Spence's execution deeply disappointed and troubled Brian Pardo. But with time, he has grown almost philosophical about it. "To me, David Spence was a casualty of war--the war on crime--and of assembly-line justice," he says. "A mistake was made fighting that war."

Some Waco law-enforcement officers are angry that Pardo didn't continue to try to resolve the case after Spence was put to death. But Pardo felt he did all he could do. He figures the Melendez brothers eventually will be paroled, and his responsibility was to try to save Spence's life. His final act was to fulfill Spence's wish to be buried in Waco, next to his mother, rather than on the prison grounds in Huntsville.

Pardo had no intention of getting involved in another capital-murder case, though his work on Spence's behalf didn't end with his death. Pardo devoted an entire issue of Capitol Watch to the improprieties in the state's case against Spence. A copy of the issue found its way to New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who wrote three scathing pieces on what he described as a "system gone mad." NBC's Dateline earlier this year aired a lengthy segment on the case.

Pardo's office was flooded with telephone calls the next day from people seeking his assistance. He ignored all of them, except for one from Sandi Aitken, Darin Routier's aunt. Pardo isn't sure why he agreed to see her, except that he was vaguely aware of the case.

"Aunt Sandi lived close and was willing to come," Pardo says. "And frankly, John [McLemore] scheduled an appointment without telling me."

Pardo made his latest fortune buying and reselling insurance policies of the terminally ill. Now he found himself in the role of trying to save people from death.

Sitting in his office, surrounded by pictures of him meeting with presidents and garden-variety politicians, Pardo told Aitken that he was not in the business of getting guilty people off death row, or innocent people off death row, for that matter.

"I'm not even in this business," he said.
But as he listened to Aitken, who sat through all four weeks of Darlie's capital-murder trial in the conservative Hill Country town of Kerrville, he was hooked. Pardo heard many things that made him question the wisdom of the jury's verdict. But what made him want to look into the case was the fact that no one in Darlie's family believed Darlie did it.

"I was struck by the thought that if Darlie was executed, there would be no one in the victim's viewing room," he says. "It was a bizarre thought that no one would be on the other side."

The more Pardo looked into the case, the more he was convinced that Darlie didn't do it.

Pardo and McLemore began reviewing assorted documents and evidence and eventually read the three true-crime books on the murder of the Routiers' young sons, plus the lengthy trial transcript--all of which they started stockpiling in a large room inside the headquarters of Life Partners. Pardo calls it "the war room."

They quickly filled in the broad outlines of the story. Darin and Darlie Routier were a young, ostentatious couple who seemed to have it all: three beautiful sons, a large, expensively decorated, two-story house near Lake Ray Hubbard, showy jewelry, and a 30-foot cabin cruiser. But like Darlie's platinum-bleached locks and her surgically enhanced breasts, much of the Routier family's outward appearance was a façade.

In the months that led up to the murders, Darin's small electronics-testing company was struggling. For the first five months of 1996, business had fallen off considerably, and the couple was worried about finances. By June, they were two months behind in their house payments, one month behind in rent on the business. They had a $12,000 Visa bill, and American Express had been writing dunning letters. Darin would later minimize the financial trouble, saying it was caused by a temporary cash-flow problem.

Darlie was having a tough year emotionally. She gave birth in October, suffered post-partum depression, and often felt stressed from the demands of caring for a baby and two energetic young boys, who were 5 and 6 years old. In May, she even briefly considered suicide, but she called Darin instead, and he came home to comfort her. Later, she would blame it on raging hormones.

By all accounts, however, Darlie was a loving, doting mom whose house neighborhood kids flocked to.

June 5, 1996, had been an ordinary day at the Routiers'. Darlie's 18-year-old sister, Dana, came over for dinner. Darin mowed the yard, and the boys played with some friends. Darlie tended baby Drake. When Darin returned from taking Dana home, the boys were lying on the den floor, curled up in blankets and nodding off in front of the television. Darlie was on the couch, where she planned to spend the night. She had been sleeping off and on in the den for a week, because the baby, who slept in the master bedroom, frequently woke her.

The couple discussed their dwindling finances--Darlie again tried to talk Darin into getting rid of the cabin cruiser. And she was upset that Darin, whose Jaguar was still in the shop, had left her stranded at home without a car. At around 12:30 a.m., they kissed goodnight, and Darin went up to bed.

At 2:30 a.m., Darlie felt Damon pressing against her on the couch and heard him moan. She says she saw a man at the end of the couch, walking away from her. She heard the sound of broken glass as he ran through the kitchen and into the utility room.

Darlie followed him into the kitchen. She turned on the light and saw a large, white-handled knife on the floor and picked it up. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she realized she had been cut. She looked back into the den and saw Devon's chest covered in blood. Having crawled away from the couch, Damon was lying face down in the hall, gasping for air.

She screamed for Darin, then grabbed the portable telephone and punched in 911. It was bedlam as a blood-soaked Darlie shrieked into the telephone and Darin ran to the children. He felt a weak pulse on Damon, but Devon wasn't breathing. He attempted to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but to no avail. Seconds after the paramedics arrived, Damon, too, took his last breath.

At first, the Routiers' tragic story was met with fear and sympathy from the surrounding community. Their neighbors discussed the mysterious black car several of them had seen near the Routiers' house in recent weeks. But within days, the police started doubting her story.

How could she have possibly slept through the attack on herself and her children, who were just several feet from her? Why didn't she help her children when the police arrived? Her stories seemed inconsistent, and the crime scene appeared staged. And how, just eight days after burying two sons, could a mother stand at the grave site and smile at a TV camera while shooting Silly String during a celebration of what would have been her oldest child's seventh birthday?

When the Rowlett police arrested Darlie less than two weeks after the murder, the media compared her to Susan Smith, the North Carolina mother who tearfully pleaded on national television for the safe return of her two children, who she claimed had been kidnapped in her car by a man. Two weeks later, Smith confessed that she killed them by rolling her car, with the children strapped to their car seats, into a lake, after her boyfriend broke up with her because he didn't want kids.

But Darlie didn't confess, and the police could never find a motive. Darlie Routier was sentenced to die, while Susan Smith is eligible for parole in 30 years. And as Brian Pardo quickly learned, in Darlie's case, there were many more questions than answers.

Darlie's wounds first caught Pardo's attention. In news reports leading up to the trial and throughout the legal proceeding, prosecutors kept referring to the stab wounds as superficial. The implication was clear: Darlie cut herself.

But when Pardo read the medical reports and looked at pictures of Darlie taken four days after the murders, he was shocked.

A slash 10 inches long and three-quarters of an inch deep angled downward, from right to left along Darlie's neck, stopping less than half an inch from her carotid artery. Had it been severed, it would have meant instant death. She suffered a one-and-a-half-inch puncture wound on her upper left chest, cuts on the palm side of her last two fingers on her left hand, and a small cut on her face. Her mouth was also raw and throbbing. Perhaps the most perplexing wound of all was a deep cut on the outside of her right forearm that penetrated the bone. Darlie was right-handed, and it was inconceivable to Pardo that she would have the force and dexterity with her left hand to cause such a powerful injury.

And how to explain the dark purple bruises that circled both wrists and covered the inside of her right arm? None of the Baylor Hospital medical personnel who testified claimed to have seen any bruises on Darlie during her day-and-a-half stay. Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Greg Davis suggested at the trial that Darlie had bruised her own arms with a baseball bat after leaving the hospital, because police were beginning to doubt her story and she had to make her injuries look more severe. But Pardo has a snapshot of Darlie in the hospital that clearly shows the bruises beginning to form near her wrist, the only part of her arm that is visible.

Sandi Aitken recalls seeing the bruises on Darlie's arms when her niece arrived at the funeral home to view the boys' bodies just hours after she had been released from the hospital. "That girl looked like she had been in a battle," Aitken says.

At her trial, defense witness Dr. Vincent DiMaio, the chief medical examiner of Bexar County and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Forensic Pathology, testified that Darlie's injuries were hardly superficial--"She showed significant blood loss"--and were not consistent with being self-inflicted. To him, the forearm puncture appeared to be a defensive wound, caused by an attempt to block a knife assault. Asked if he thought she could have caused such severe bruising to herself, the doctor just laughed.

The Rowlett police were the first to seize on the notion that Darlie had cut herself, after interviewing the Baylor doctor who had just spent an hour and a half stitching her up. He told the officers that her wounds were superficial, but he later clarified that term to mean only that they had not hit any vital organs and the patient would survive. The police then called in Janice Townsend-Parchman, the Dallas County assistant medical examiner. After a 10-minute examination of the bandaged, heavily sedated Darlie, Townsend-Parchman told an officer that the stab wounds could have been self-inflicted. In court, Dr. Townsend-Parchman would admit that Darlie's cuts were deeper than most hesitation wounds made by people who want to hurt, but not kill, themselves.

With no confession, seemingly no motive, and no eyewitnesses, the case against Darlie was purely circumstantial, a battle of differing expert opinions. But Pardo insists that one piece of hard evidence--a timeline of events surrounding the assaults--proves Darlie did not have time to stage a crime scene, as the prosecution claimed.

According to the prosecution's own witness, given the nature of Damon's five stab wounds to the back, the boy lived at the most for eight or nine minutes after the attack. Darlie's anguished call to 911 lasted five and a half minutes. The police spent about two minutes checking the house to make sure the alleged intruder was not still there. Then the paramedics arrived and, within 30 seconds, paramedic Jack Colbye rolled Damon over and watched him let out his final breath.

If Darlie were the killer, Pardo argues, that would leave her only a minute to take one of her husband's socks from a rag pile in the utility room, smear it with two nickel-sized drops of Damon's and Devon's blood, then run through the back yard, open a gate, run 75 yards down the alley in her bare feet, and deposit the sock next to a curbside garbage can, where it was later found by police. Then she would have to run back, repeatedly stab herself--none of her blood had been found trailing to or from the alley--at the sink, where the prosecution theorized she had cut herself, run to the couch and bleed on a pillow, return to the kitchen and bleed heavily on the floor, and knock a wine glass from a rack onto the floor, before screaming for Darin and calling 911.

"Darlie clearly didn't have the time to do all that," says Pardo. In previous media interviews, prosecutor Greg Curtis, who did not return calls from the Observer, has dismissed the whole argument with the simple explanation, "Darlie had plenty of time." As for the jury, members interviewed after the trial said they simply ignored the whole timeline defense. "We didn't buy it," one juror told The Dallas Morning News. It was complicated to follow, and Pardo argues that Darlie's defense attorney, Doug Mulder, did not explain it well or often enough.

"The jury invented their own timeline," says Lloyd Harrell, a former FBI agent who worked as an investigator for Darlie's defense team. "The jury is not supposed to solve the crime. They are supposed to render a verdict on the evidence presented. I thought I knew what reasonable doubt was until this case."

If Darlie intended to murder her sons, why wouldn't she have made sure they were dead before calling an ambulance? That is a question Pardo and other Darlie supporters have been asking since she was arrested.

It is clear from Darlie's 911 call, during which the operator describes her as "hysterical," that she knew that Damon was still alive. According to a transcript of the call, Darlie twice tells Damon to "hang on, honey, hang on." She twice tells the operator that "my babies are dying," and then another time shouts, "what's taking so long...if they [the paramedics] don't get here soon my babies are going to die."

Despite Darlie's seeming desire to want to save her sons, the police say she made no attempt to help the boys as they lay on the floor dying. In the affidavit for Darlie's arrest warrant it says, "...Darlie never made attempts to stop their bleeding, touch them, or render first aid."

Two days after the murder, in between being discharged from the hospital and viewing the children's bodies at the funeral home, Darin and Darlie were asked to go to police headquarters and give written statements about what they remembered from the night of the attacks. Among other things, Darin wrote that before help had arrived, he gave Devon CPR, and Darlie wrote that she had placed a towel on Damon's back. She would later tell the police that she also brought Darin wet towels for Devon.

A Rowlett paramedic told the Observer that he never saw a towel on Damon's back. But at the trial, the police officer who collected evidence from the scene testified that there were at least four wet, bloody dish towels strewn around the house, two near where Damon was found, one by Devon, and one in the kitchen by the phone. The officer chose not to collect the towels as evidence, because he didn't think they were important.

A cornerstone of the case the police built against Darlie was "her inconsistent statements."

According to the arrest-warrant affidavit, she initially told officers that she woke up with a man brandishing a knife standing over her and they struggled. In her voluntary statement she wrote that Damon woke her up on the couch, and then she saw a man walking away from her. She tells the nurses in the hospital that she remembered a man standing over her with a knife, and tells a friend that the man was rubbing her face with the knife. The police also claim she told them different versions of how and where she came upon the knife.

But officers did not take notes of many of their interviews with Darlie. The lead investigator, Jimmy Patterson, conducted his first interview with Darlie moments after she awoke from surgery and was heavily medicated. Several times in the arrest warrant, Patterson writes that Darlie's written statement says she found "the knife on the utility-room floor." Nowhere in the statement does she write or indicate that.

Unfortunately, the defense couldn't examine these issues with Patterson, because he took the Fifth Amendment in the middle of his testimony when Darlie's defense lawyer began asking him about his decision to illegally bug the boys' graves in the hopes of obtaining a graveside confession.

The prosecution accused her of later embellishing details she had left out of her voluntary statement in order to counteract incriminating evidence. For example, her written statement says only that she put a towel on Damon's back. After the arrest warrant points out that a copious amount of blood found at the sink led the crime-scene investigator to believe she slit her throat there, Darlie started saying that she also had fetched wet towels for Darin, who was aiding Devon.

Investigator Lloyd Harrell, who has become an outspoken advocate for Darlie, says the state held her to an unfair standard of truth. "They insisted she give a voluntary statement before she goes to the viewing of her children. She tells them she won't have enough time to get it all in, then they hold it against her because she says it is incomplete."

The state overlooks its own inconsistencies. In a dramatic moment in the trial, a blood-splatter expert shows how spots of the boys' blood came to be on the back of Darlie's nightshirt. With a knife in his hand, the expert repeatedly makes stabbing motions, bringing the knife high over his head and coming down on an imaginary child. Yet the two dime-sized drops of the boys' blood overlap drops of Darlie's blood on the nightshirt, apparently contradicting the state's theory that Darlie cut herself only after returning from depositing the sock down the alley, after the boys were stabbed.

The police found it patently incredible that Darlie didn't remember the face of the man who attacked her or the details of the struggle that ensued and that she claimed to have slept through her own attack and those on the children. At trial, psychiatrist Lisa Clayton said Darlie was suffering "psychic numbing" and "traumatic amnesia," conditions that prevented her from remembering details of what happened.

"I think that for anyone in that situation, there may be some normal discrepancies," she testified.

Prosecutor Toby Shook did not have any expert of his own to rebut Clayton's testimony. Instead, he sarcastically dismissed the whole notion by labeling it "selective amnesia" and calling it a "convenient defense."

Pardo sees it otherwise. He finds it inconceivable that someone would stage a fairly elaborate murder and crime scene, then fail to make up a few measly details about what the intruder looked like and how the killings occurred.

At 6:30 on the morning of the attacks, James Cron, a freelance crime-scene analyst hired by the Rowlett police, came to inspect the Routier home. Within 30 minutes, he told police officers there had been no intruder, the crime scene had been staged, and very little of what Darlie had told the police was supported by evidence at the scene. Not enough blood on the couch where Darlie said she was attacked, he said. No splattered blood in the den, which you would expect from a fight. Not enough toppled furniture.

But Cron made his assessment before knowing that a bloody sock was found in the alley, or that a pillow with copious amounts of Darlie's blood had been found near the couch, and after paramedics put the heavy glass top of the coffee table back on its pedestal.

Even so, once Cron was made aware of these facts, he didn't change his opinion. In fact, over the next six hours that he spent analyzing the Routier crime scene, what he discovered only strengthened what he originally suspected.

Small details just didn't add up. The layer of dust on the sill below the garage window--through which the intruder supposedly entered and exited through a cut screen--had not been disturbed. Neither had the mulch in the beds around the patio. The backyard fence gate was closed, which is not something a fleeing intruder would take the time to do, especially with this gate, which had a tendency to stick. And the fence showed no scuff marks from someone climbing over it.

Cron admits that an intruder wouldn't necessarily have had to leave scuff marks. And the prosecution inadvertently dashed the windowsill theory when a police officer, who twice climbed through a mock-up of the window at trial, never touched the sill. That same officer, however, happened to touch the window ledge in the exact spot where Cron recovered the only identifiable prints in the house. They didn't match Darlie, Darin, or their immediate family. Cron couldn't compare them with Damon's or Devon's prints, though, because the morgue had forgotten to fingerprint them.

Cron found that the blood patterns didn't match Darlie's story. The intruder left no traces of blood on his exit trail along the window or on the white privacy fence. There aren't any of Darlie's bloody footprints along the path she said she took while following the intruder, and there's none of her blood in the utility room, as Cron would have expected. And he found no splatter marks indicating the dropped knife she said she found on the utility-room floor.

Harrell thinks Cron has based these observations on unfounded assumptions. The intruder, he says, didn't necessarily have to have blood all over him. "Knife wounds tend to bleed internally first, then seep to the surface," he says. "They don't spurt like they do in the movies, unless certain arteries are hit."

Concerning the lack of Darlie's bloody footprints headed toward the utility room, Harrell says he suspects Darlie wasn't bleeding onto the floor yet that soon after getting up off the couch. He believes the blood saturated her nightshirt first, then eventually dripped to the floor. And he notes that Darlie never wrote that she found the knife on the utility-room floor.

Cron came to the conclusion that Darlie slit her throat and injured her shoulder and arm at the kitchen sink, because there are puddles of blood in front of the sink, smeared blood on the counter in front of it, and evidence that blood had been washed from the sink. Harrell believes the blood in and around the sink was more likely to have come from Darlie fetching dishtowels for her wounds and for the children.

Both Darlie and Darin confirmed hearing glass shattering shortly before Darlie started screaming. Darlie claimed the intruder had knocked a wineglass from the wine rack in the kitchen as he fled. The shards of glass Cron found on the kitchen floor proved to him that this was part of the staging, because the pieces had fallen on top of Darlie's bloody footprint.

Couldn't all the police and trace experts who came traipsing through before he arrived have kicked it there? Sure, Cron says, if it were just one piece, but he says the crime-scene pictures show many shards on the footprint. In fact, the prosecution submitted only one picture into evidence, and it shows a single piece of glass that is barely touching the edge of a footprint.

As for the errant bloody sock, Cron said he thinks Darin put it down the alley in an attempt to cover for his wife, and the boys' blood came from wiping a portion of the knife. But none of Devon's blood was ever found on the knife.

Asked if it were unusual that only blood and clothing fibers from Damon and Darlie were found on the knife, Cron said Devon wasn't wearing a shirt and his blood might have been wiped off during the subsequent attacks. But Devon was wearing a shirt; the paramedics had removed it. And Devon's wounds were the deepest, by more than an inch, so how would blood from the deepest part of his cuts have been wiped off the knife during a subsequent attack? Pardo suspects that two knives were used, and thus there were two assailants. He's retained a forensic pathologist to investigate whether he can tell from pictures of the wounds and the autopsies whether the cuts were made from two separate knives.

Charles Linch, a trace-materials analyst with the Southwest Institute for Forensic Science, supported Cron's contention that the scene was staged. He maintained that the screen had been cut from the outside with a bread knife from the kitchen. He based this claim on a tiny amount of fiberglass and rubber debris that he found on the knife. It was such a tiny amount, there was none left over for defense to do their own testing.

Cron admits this evidence was not conclusive. But it helped sway the jury. It had to be a setup, one juror said after the trial, because an intruder wouldn't use his knife to cut the screen, then use one from the house in the attacks.

Harrell has a possible answer for this. "Maybe they wanted to keep their own knife free of incriminating evidence," he says, further explaining why the intruder would leave the bloody knife behind. But all of this is beside the point. It is clear to him that the jury tried to solve the case, and that wasn't their job.

"If you have questions, you have doubt, and you're supposed to acquit."

Like many people, Pardo is convinced that what persuaded the jury to convict was the televised footage of the party the Routiers held at the Rockwall graveyard eight days after the murder to honor what would have been Devon's seventh birthday. The camera captured Darlie joyously squirting Silly String on the grave, which was covered with toys and balloons, and hugging her guests.

The image was not what one would expect of a grieving young mother. Of course, what the television camera didn't catch was the solemn, tear-filled memorial service presided over by a pastor that preceded the party.

Perhaps it was having seen the party scene on the news that made the Baylor Hospital staff decide that Darlie had not shown an appropriate amount of grief when she was hospitalized after the attack. But the nurses' testimony that Darlie didn't cry and seemed emotionally detached doesn't square with the notes they made on her chart. When she entered the intensive care unit after her wounds were stitched, Darlie's chart read that she was "crying and visibly upset." Two hours later, a nurse notes: "Patient very emotional. Periods of sobbing, talking about night and family." An hour later, with her family and a chaplain at her bedside, she is "very tearful." Throughout the afternoon and the following morning, before Darlie is discharged, there are several notations that she is "tearful" and "anxious."

Harrell says the defense was handicapped because they had only 60 days to prepare for the trial. He never had time, for example, to interview the nurses. He wanted to ask them what the expected reaction is for someone in the face of trauma and death. He would have pointed out to them that Susan Smith appeared to grieve appropriately--before confessing to killing her kids.

Jurors did think Darlie exhibited more emotion for herself than for her children during her four-hour testimony. Darlie did not make the best witness. When the prosecutor pressed her about the family finances, Darlie tried to minimize the issue. The mortgage payment wasn't missing, just late, she said. She came across as argumentative. And when Assistant District Attorney Toby Shook confronted her with letters that she had written from jail to friends and family members that said, "We believe we know who did it. I saw him, and I know who it is," Darlie began sobbing. She tried to explain through her tears that investigators working for her lawyers at the time kept telling her about information they were collecting on different suspects, and she was hoping that the leads would pan out. But the damage was done; she appeared as if she had been caught in a lie.

"I've been to two goat ropings and one county fair, and I'm not a dummy, but I've never seen a crime that doesn't have a motive," says Lloyd Harrell. "I think it is fundamentally wrong that you've got a girl on death row and the state says it doesn't have to prove a motive. It doesn't make any sense. You can't find anyone to say anything bad about her. She was the mother whom all the other mothers trusted. And all of a sudden she snaps. Well, you don't just snap back. I lie awake at night trying to figure it out."

Lack of motive was a tricky issue for the prosecution, but they dealt with it deftly. Toby Shook simply told the jury that the state was not required to prove a motive in order to prove guilt. And besides, he said, how could there be any motive that would justify killing two innocent children?

But they tried to concoct one anyway. They painted Darlie as self-centered, vain, and hopelessly materialistic. They hinted that the motive was that she was angry at Darin, upset that the "money train" had stopped and that the children were hindering her freedom and lifestyle. They even suggested she did it for the insurance money--$10,000, which paid for their funeral.

Numerous friends offered testimony that the portrait the prosecution painted of Darlie couldn't be further from the truth. Karen Neal, a neighbor, countered that Darlie was "very compassionate and very outstanding with her children." When the Neal family experienced hard financial times one year, Darlie made sure their children had plenty of gifts.

When Pardo concluded that the jury failed to convict Darlie on the evidence, he decided to put his efforts into discovering the truth. People advised him that the next step was to rule Darin out as a suspect and that he should do it by getting him to take a polygraph.

Darin originally readily agreed to do it, then canceled several sessions Pardo had scheduled. Finally, in late May, accompanied by his mother, Sarilda, and mother-in-law, "Mama Darlie" Key, Darin drove to Pardo's office to take the test. The polygraph examiner, who works for the Waco police, asked Darin four questions: Were you involved in any plan to commit a crime in your home in June of 1996? Did you, yourself, stab Darlie on June 6, 1996? Do you know exactly who left the sock in the alley? Can you name the person who stabbed your sons? The examiner concluded that Darin showed deception in his answers to all four questions. "My professional opinion is that the subject was lying," he stated.

Pardo also had a videotape of Darin's post-test interview analyzed by a voice stress expert in Houston. During this interview, he was asked if he stabbed Darlie. He grinned and said no. Pardo says the voice stress analysis concluded Darin was lying. Darlie, however, passed a similar test conducted of a videotaped interview where she professed her innocence.

Pardo has resorted to questionable techniques, from handwriting analysis to reverse speech, wherein a tape of the person talking is played backwards and his subconscious supposedly reveals all sorts of unvarnished truths. From this, Pardo thinks he's determined exactly what happened that night in the Routier household and why. Pardo is clearly creeping close to the lunatic fringe here. So far, except for satisfying some need of his to play pseudo detective, none of this amounts to much. But he recently hired Houston detective Richard Reyna to track down some promising leads.

Whatever credibility Pardo has, his latest tactics are eroding it. Except for Aunt Sandi and Darlie, no one in the Routier family is talking to him now. They almost told him to take a hike, but with an expensive appeals process looming and very little money of their own, they know Pardo's generosity might be needed. In the meantime, people working on Darlie's behalf worry that unless Pardo can come up with something solid and admissible in court, he may be hurting Darlie more than helping.

"Brian is a neophyte in this business, and I jumped his ass about going public with Darin's polygraph results," says Stephen Cooper, Darlie's court-appointed appeals lawyer. "You don't go public with information that could be harmful to a client's best interest. The D.A. has always suspected Darin was involved in some form. This could explain how the sock got down the alley. You are tainting an important witness for the defense. Say she wins a new trial and there are no new facts; Darin is the only person who can corroborate her story."

Cooper understands that Pardo is trying to put pressure on whoever he thinks are the real culprits in an attempt to "flush them out. Darlie desperately wants to find the real killer, but 99 percent of cases don't result in that."

Even if Pardo is right in believing that the state did not prove its case against Darlie, arguing that in an appeal is a tough way to get a capital-murder verdict overturned. And the No. 1 goal is to win a new trial, says Cooper.

"Most people looking at the evidence are convinced, and we are too, that it doesn't reach the level of establishing guilt by beyond a reasonable doubt," Cooper says. "But arguing that in an appeal is fairly rare. But we're looking at it."

The more conventional--and winnable--approach is to show that errors were committed during the trial. But those errors must be egregious enough to have deprived the defendant of a fair trial. For example, Cooper says, it was "outrageous" that Rowlett police officer Jimmy Lee Patterson, the lead investigator on the Routier case, took the Fifth Amendment. "But we have to show how that harmed [Darlie]."

Pardo knows better than most, from his experience with David Spence, that even with the most compelling new evidence and examples of significant trial error, it is often next to impossible to get a case overturned.

But thanks to Pardo, Cooper may get some top-notch help with the appeal. Pardo recently paid $8,000 for Steve Loesch, one of the best appellate attorneys in the state, to review the trial transcript and make some preliminary recommendations on how to proceed with the appeal. Pardo also may bring Loesch on board to handle part of the appeal--if the cost isn't too prohibitive.

Pardo and Cooper agree on one thing: "From looking at the pictures you can tell that Darlie was definitely a victim," says Cooper. "Crazy people can slaughter their children and cut the shit out of themselves. But with crazy people, there is usually a downward spiral and after a crime, they don't become normal again. This woman is not crazy.

"It is absolutely clear to me that she is absolutely not guilty of this crime. Guilty people know they are guilty and there are limits on their ability to think logically. They frequently mislead their lawyer. But she has good suggestions about what leads to follow, not just rabbit trails. From the media reports and the pictures of her, the impression I had was that she was shallow and not very smart. But I'm really impressed with Darlie."

A small brick bunker bordered by flowers and razor wire houses Texas' women's death row. It is one of a dozen or so drab buildings that make up the Texas prison system's maximum-security Mountain View Unit in rural Gatesville.

The seven women incarcerated here spend their days in a large room off their cellblock, gathered in a sewing circle of sorts making dolls and other assorted crafts. The room has a television, an old exercise bike, and shelves full of books.

After being strip-searched, Darlie, escorted by a female guard, arrives unshackled in the visiting room, where she is separated from her visitors by a window. She is pale and plainer now, her frothy blonde hair all but grown out, the multiple earrings she used to wear replaced by simple gold crosses. But she is still pretty, and her large doe eyes are heavily made up.

When she talks about her children, she starts to cry. The prison spokesman, who accompanies reporters to every interview, will later say it's the first time she's seen Darlie cry in a while. But it's impossible to divine some deeper meaning from the show of emotion. Like so much of Darlie's story, it is ultimately unknowable.

"Sometimes it's like it's not real, like this is not really happening to me," Darlie says. "But it's not about guilt or innocence. It's about my babies are gone, and they're not coming back to me. They were my whole world. There aren't words that can describe that kind of pain, that kind of loss."

She thinks about her dead sons every day, she says, especially in the evenings, when she is by herself in her cell. "But I am not going to cry on cue for somebody. I deal with my emotions. But no matter what you do, people are judging you by their standards."

She is still angry that people reacted so horribly to the graveside birthday party. She is certain that the jury, who was shown videotape of the party six times, convicted her because of it. Neither the party nor the Silly String was her idea, but that doesn't matter. "I refuse to apologize for it. And I would do it again. People made something so ugly out of something done out of pure love." The party, she explains, was a celebration of her son's life. Devon's birthday party had been planned weeks before his death, and canceling it would be the final acknowledgment that he was gone. It was a way to hold on a little longer.

"The next day we were supposed to fly to Pennsylvania to celebrate my grandparents' 50th anniversary. Every time my dad and I talk, he mentions all the stuff he had planned to do with Devon and Damon. He was going to take them camping..." she says, too emotional to finish the sentence.

"Yes, there were stresses in my life, normal stresses. But there was so much going on. We had all these plans. It was a happy time."

Darlie apologizes that she can't talk much about developments in her case. "I finally have people really putting their heart into this, finding answers. I want to share it, but I can't."

The conversation naturally shifts to Brian Pardo, a touchy subject. "Brian is a nice man who sincerely wants to help. He wants to look at everything. I can't agree with everything he does. But in the end, the more we get into this, I think he'll be OK."

The subject of Darin's polygraph is off limits. "It doesn't prove anything. There's reason why a polygraph is not used in a court of law." She still refuses to believe Darin had anything to do with her attack and the murder of their children

The conversation keeps veering back to elements of the case that frustrate her, how the circumstantial evidence was twisted against her. Like a boxer who loses the most important fight of his life on a technical knockout, she can't give it up. She mentally replays the fight repeatedly seeing how obvious it is--to her--that there should have been a different outcome.

Ultimately, an interview with Darlie Routier is maddeningly frustrating. She is still hopelessly vague on the details of the attack. She has undergone several sessions of regression therapy to try to restore her memory of the event. "The therapy helped me understand a few things more that happened. With the hypnosis I know definitely there was more than one person there that night."

Though she only saw one person leave that night, from what the experts have told her, there had to be two people, because there were probably two knives used. So, did the therapy help her actually remember two assailants, or is it simply wishful thinking? Only God, Darlie, and two little boys know the answer.

On the way back to her cell, Darlie, who says she "never sewed on a button in my life," proudly points out a large embroidered white pillow that she has made for her son, Drake, who is almost 3. Darin or family members bring him to visit her about twice a month, but a plastic wall prevents them from ever touching.

Her cell is a mess. Guards have gone through all of the inmates' belongings in a routine lockdown where they search for contraband. Amid all her personal belongings--boxes of family photographs, Tootsie Roll pops, clothes, and toiletries, the guard found and confiscated a pair of the Victoria's Secret panties she wore the day she was incarcerated--her only link to the life she had before coming. The guard assures her that they'll be returned and that taking them away was just part of procedure.

As the cell door locks behind her, she turns and says good-bye. I wish her luck.

"Thanks," she says. "I'll need it.

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Ann Zimmerman