The State Never Could Execute Ronald "Buffalo" Chambers. But He's Dead Now.

I cannot count the number of stories Observer editor Mark Donald and I have written about Ronald "Buffalo" Chambers, who, on April 10, 1975, kidnapped 22-year-old Texas Tech student Mike McMahan and 20-year-old Deia Sutton, drove them to the Trinity River bottoms and shot both in the head. McMahan died from his injuries; Sutton survived and testified against Chambers, who wound up receiving a death sentence.

For years he managed to escape death due to technicalities and questions about his prosecution. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that a state-appointed psychiatrist who questioned Chambers didn't tell him whatever he said would be used against him. The Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors kept African-Americans off the jury. After another execution date was set for January 2007, Justice Antonin Scalia put a stop to it as the court looked to see whether jurors had had been properly instructed to consider mitigating circumstances during his trial and two others in Texas. Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that his case must go back to trial court in Dallas, where he would be re-sentenced. He was brought back to Dallas last year to await that date.

Alas, Chambers -- the so-called Dean of Death Row, given his tenure as the longest-serving inmate awaiting execution -- won't be executed by the state after all. Reports the Associated Press, Dallas County Sheriff's Department spokesperson Kim Leach says that the 55-year-old Ronald Chambers died Friday, shortly after guards found him on the floor of his cell and took him to Parkland Memorial Hospital. I couldn't reach Leach this morning, but she tells the AP Chambers arrived in Dallas with "a series of health complications."

Update at 1:39 p.m.: I finally spoke to Leach, who confirms: Guards found him on the floor in his cell Friday at around 6:30 a.m., at which point they began administering CPR. An ambulance was called, and he was taken Parkland's ER, where he was pronounced dead. Leach says sheriff's department records do not show when Chambers was next due in court. And efforts to reach his last attorney, Danalynn Recer of Houston, have proved unsuccessful so far this afternoon.

According to Dallas County records, Chambers was due back in court December 10 for one of several hearings and panels on the calendar before a scheduled September 6, 2011, jury trial.

Update at 2:27 p.m.: The Dallas County Medical Examiners Office says it won't know what caused Chambers's death for another six to 12 weeks.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky