Longform

Defending Darlie

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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.

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Ann Zimmerman