Longform

The Cult of Darlie

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During the three-hour taping, no one threw chairs, but there was plenty of screaming and yelling. Most of it came from audience members, whom Leeza kept asking at regular intervals--usually right in the middle of some important, complex point a guest was trying to make--whether they thought Darlie had killed her children. It was like a modern-day Colosseum, with the audience there to give a thumbs-up or -down. While it appeared the audience was evenly divided on whether to feed her to the lions, I later learned that members of Darlie's extended family populated the side of the audience that consistently hooted and hollered she was innocent. And you thought only boxing was fixed.

Three audience members had also been pre-selected to bone up on details of the case, by, among other things, watching a previous segment Leeza did on Darlie shortly after she was convicted. One of these women, who was flown in from Las Vegas, was selected because her cousin is a friend of the producers. Another audience participant who, it turns out, has appeared in this role on previous shows, had a godchild who attended pre-school with one of Leeza's three children. Talk about credentials. And the third woman was Lora Cain, a KRLD producer for the Charley Jones Show. Although she covered the case for radio, the audience wasn't told that.

The first segment focused on a panel of experts--a term used very loosely in the TV-talk-show world, it seems--who would revisit the Routier case. Christopher Brown would make a case for Darlie's innocence; Fort Worth criminal lawyer Bill Lane, who did analysis of the Routier trial for KXAS-Channel 5 News, would counter with reasons why she was guilty; and I was supposed to play the neutral reporter, someone who believed there were intriguing questions, inconsistencies, and discrepancies that raised reasonable doubt about Darlie's guilt.

The next segment featured Darin; Darlie's mother, Darlie Kee; and mother-in-law Sarilda Routier; plus Barbara Davis, Christopher Brown, and Bill Lane. Add to that the give-and-take with the studio audience, and it was at least a five- or six-ring circus at all times. The family complained about how unfairly people judged them without knowing the facts. Darin cried when he recounted how he and Darlie renewed their wedding vows during a prison visitation. "We had to put our hands against the glass and say I love you," he said. He told the audience he believes the incident was a rape and robbery that went awry when Darlie fought back. Then, apropos of absolutely nothing, he once again mentioned that his wife possesses 36-DDD breasts.

In this theater of the absurd, it was difficult for Brown and Davis to make their case. At one point during a break in the taping, some of the guests gently reminded Leeza that she had not asked Barbara Davis precisely what she's learned that made her do such an incredible flip-flop. But it wasn't until I got back to Dallas that I started getting some answers.

A diminutive blonde in stiletto heels, Davis wants you to know how hard it has been on her to come to the realization that she was wrong about Darlie. A former victim's advocate for 10 years with the Tarrant County District Attorney's office, widow of a Tarrant County deputy sheriff, and unabashedly pro-prosecution, Davis says she is the last person who'd be persuaded to take up the cause of a death-row inmate.

That is not to say she didn't keep an open mind during the trial. But afterward, and in the follow-up reporting she did, she was certain the state put the right person behind bars. Her book paints a vicious portrait of Darlie as a materialistic shrew, beset by crushing debts, put out by the responsibilities of raising two young boys and a baby, and longing for her wild and carefree youth. After the book came out, Sherri Wallace, one of the Dallas assistant district attorneys who tried the case, wrote Davis a note, thanking her for sticking up for them.

"I believed with a passion she was guilty and she was where she needed to be," Davis says. "I trusted the police and DA's office. Then I found out things weren't what I thought. I felt lied to. Things were hidden."

She came to this realization slowly, reluctantly, after Christopher Brown contacted her and asked her whether she'd look at the evidence he had compiled. "I thought he would just be wasting my time. But as I went through it, I got sicker and sicker. I started crying. This has been a devastating time for me."

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Ann Zimmerman

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