Snap up the May issue this Thursday and be ready for serious summer fun! Pool not included. Cover photo by @randalford (at Texas Monthly)
IV: THE JOURNALIST
In the spring of 1997 Fredric Dannen had just returned to New York City after a month of reporting in Hong Kong for a magazine article on organized crime. At 41, Dannen had built a formidable writing career, publishing a best-selling nonfiction book about the music business, Hit Men, before joining Vanity Fair and then the New Yorker as a staff writer. A native of New York and an accomplished pianist, Dannen had a small build and an intense disposition, and he was known for his ability to get interviews with tough subjects, from Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates to New York drug kingpin Lorenzo Nichols. Over the years he had made a name for himself as an investigative reporter with a penchant for penetrating dark and complicated worlds, such as those of the Mafia and the gangs of Chinatown.
On March 30 Dannen was busy writing in his apartment when the phone rang. On the line was a publicist he knew who happened to do work for Brian Pardo; the publicist asked if he wanted to take a look at one of the habeas writs for David Spence. Dannen was preoccupied with his article but asked the publicist to messenger it over. He didn’t know a lot about the death penalty, yet when he read the writ, the inmate’s conviction didn’t make sense. “I kept shaking my head,” he told me. “Spence’s attorneys made a stronger case for prosecutorial misconduct than the state had made against him for murder. It’s not that I thought he was innocent, but I thought, ‘They can’t execute him based on this record.’ ”
Click here to continue Book 4 of The Murders at the Lake.
Photograph by Daniela Elena Franco
III. THE LAWYER
In 1991 Texas was carrying out more executions than any other state. After the U.S. Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty, in 1976, the first Texas execution took place in 1982; by the end of that decade, the state was responsible for 33 of the country’s 116 executions. There were many reasons for this: Texas’s law-and-order tradition, its system of electing tough-on-crime judges, its practice of appointing low-paid, inexperienced defense lawyers. Perhaps more significant, however, was the fact that Texas, unlike many states, had no law requiring that a death row inmate be granted legal representation for his writ of habeas corpus. In fact, it was standard practice for judges to set death dates before inmates had even filed these appeals.
Texas’s execution tally attracted the interest of anti–death penalty activists everywhere, and in 1988 a federally funded nonprofit known as the Texas Resource Center opened its doors in Austin to offer pro bono help to death row inmates, either by connecting them with law firms who could help with their habeas appeals or by representing them in-house. The TRC lawyers faced an enormous task: to persuade the courts that their clients, whom they knew in most cases to be guilty, had received an unfair trial or death sentence and thus deserved a new trial or at least a life sentence. To uncover any facts that might help save their clients—that prosecutors had concealed evidence, for example, or that an inmate had suffered an abusive childhood or was mentally disabled—the attorneys had to reinvestigate every case, searching through files and trial transcripts, visiting with inmates, and traveling far and wide to find old and new witnesses. The lawyers worked nonstop, often juggling several cases at once in a race against the clock, filing appeals and motions up until the very hour of a scheduled execution.
It was grueling, often heartbreaking work, and it tended to attract young, idealistic lawyers, like two attorneys in their late twenties named Rob Owen and Raoul Schonemann. Owen, a Harvard law graduate from Georgia, moved to Texas to work for the nonprofit in 1989; he encouraged Schonemann, an NYU law grad who’d grown up in Ohio and Indiana, to join him a couple of years later. The two had become friends after working one summer in Atlanta on death penalty cases with the American Civil Liberties Union, and they had developed a passion for representing the doomed. When Schonemann arrived for work, in the summer of 1991, he was immediately enthralled by the TRC’s pace. Six or seven full-time lawyers handled five to ten appeals at any given time, for convicts who had sometimes just weeks, or days, to live. “It was one crisis after another,” Schonemann told me. “Like a legal MASH unit.”
Click here to continue Book 3 of The Murders at the Lake.
Photograph by Matt Rainwaters
II. THE DETECTIVE
Jan Evans didn’t know anything about Waco before she moved there, in June 1981. An attractive blonde from Detroit, the 29-year-old thought the city’s name was pronounced “Wacko” and assumed its residents got around on horses. She was a tomboy who had grown up wanting to be a cop, like her grandfather, and joined the Detroit Police Department in 1977. But four years later she was laid off, and wanting to live someplace warm, she applied for a job in Texas. The Waco Police Department offered her a position, and when she arrived, she was pleasantly surprised to find that the city had cars and paved roads.
Click here to continue Book Two of The Murders at the Lake
Robert Rodriguez, no stranger to flames. #tbt #covershoot #fireinthehole (at Texas Monthly)
I. THE COP
Patrol sergeant Truman Simons was driving down Franklin Avenue, in downtown Waco, when the call came over the police radio. It was around six-thirty on a summer evening in 1982, and the 39-year-old officer had just returned to his squad car after visiting his wife, Judy. His shift, from three p.m. to one a.m., didn’t allow the couple to see much of each other, so he’d stop by her office when he could, then head back out on patrol. Now it was dinnertime, and Simons had been thinking about grabbing some food, maybe at the Whataburger over on Seventh.
The call was urgent: a body had been discovered at Speegleville Park, near Lake Waco. Simons, a ruggedly handsome man with dark-brown eyes and a brown mustache, took a deep breath. Waco had been having a violent summer; it was July 14, and already a dozen people had been murdered in the city of 100,000. Some cases were the kind he’d seen before, like that of a prostitute who’d been stabbed and thrown into the river. But others had left even the most hardened officers in the Waco Police Department reeling. Just ten weeks earlier, a father of five had been beaten to death by a stranger in his front yard because he wouldn’t light the guy’s marijuana cigarette. In June two cops had been shot in a gun battle downtown. For all of Waco’s small-town feel, Simons—himself the father of a young boy—recognized that these were big-city problems.
Click here to continue Book One of The Murders at the Lake
Photograph: Waco Tribune-Herald
Every murder involves a vast web of people, from the witnesses and the detectives who first come to the scene, to the lawyers and the juries who examine the facts, to the families of the victims, who must make sense of the aftermath. The more traumatic the killing, the more intricate the web. In the summer of 1982 the city of Waco was confronted with the most vicious crime it had ever seen: three teenagers were savagely stabbed to death, for no apparent reason, at a park by a lake on the edge of town. Justice was eventually served when four men were found guilty of the crime, and two were sent to death row. In 1991, though, when one of the convicts got a new trial and was then found not guilty, some people wondered, Were these four actually the killers? Several years after that, one of the men was put to death, and the stakes were raised: Had Texas executed an innocent man?
This week, with the release of its April issue, Texas Monthly will publish “The Murders at the Lake,” an in-depth examination into the Lake Waco murders, for which one man (David Spence) was executed, two others (brothers Gilbert and Tony Melendez) were given life sentences, and a fourth (Muneer Deeb) was sent to death row only to be released after six years.
Texas Monthly senior editor Michael Hall spent a year studying the case, conducting dozens of interviews with the principal and minor players and reviewing thousands of pages of transcripts, depositions, and affidavits, from the case’s six capital murder trials and one aggravated sexual abuse trial. The result is a 25,000-word piece that examines the case through the viewpoint of five people: a patrol sergeant who investigated the crime; a police detective who became skeptical of the investigation; an appellate lawyer who tried to stop Spence’s execution; a journalist whose reporting has raised new doubts about the case; and a convict who pleaded guilty but now vehemently proclaims his innocence.
This article, which will be serialized on texasmonthly.com over the next two weeks, is not a legal document; some of the people involved in the case are dead, others don’t remember much, and even others—including the patrol sergeant who investigated the case and the DA who prosecuted it—refused to be interviewed. Rather, this is a story built around the question that has haunted so many people for so many years: What really happened at the lake that night?
Stay tuned. The first installment of this remarkable story will be published tomorrow.
Collage by Adam Voorhes and Robin Finlay
Spring break may be over, but the May issue party has just begun. #heyholetsgo (at Texas Monthly)
Not everybody gets it.
Big Bend National Park
by Jeff Lynch
It’s five o’clock somewhere, so git yerself to one of the 10 best new bars in Texas.
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