Longform

Defending Darlie

Page 14 of 17

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.

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Ann Zimmerman