Four years ago, Darlie Routier had platinum hair, fake nails and artificially enlarged breasts. Those bad-girl looks helped convict the 27-year-old suburban housewife of murdering her two small children. These days, as one of eight women on death row in Texas--a state that holds executions regularly--the brunette with waist-length hair spends less time in front of the mirror than she does pursuing her appeal. "I want justice," she told NEWSWEEK in an exclusive interview.
Now, new evidence has surfaced that might help corroborate her story: previously overlooked fingerprints of one of her murdered sons. The prints, says a former New York Police Department examiner hired by Routier's attorneys, don't match a much-debated bloody fingerprint found on a coffee table at the murder scene. The jury had dismissed the bloody smear at trial partly on the assumption that it likely came from one of the murdered boys.
The new evidence could help bolster Routier's already improving chances of a retrial. Could the bloody fingerprint be that of the real killer? All along, Routier has maintained that an unknown intruder repeatedly stabbed her sons Devon, 6, and Damon, 5, after she fell asleep beside them watching TV in the family room of their home in suburban Dallas. "I saw him walk out of the utility room, but I cannot remember his face," Routier told NEWSWEEK.
Investigators doubted that account from the beginning. For one thing, they found little evidence of forced entry and no bloodstains around the garage window through which the killer allegedly fled as Routier's husband Darin and eight-month-old baby Drake slept upstairs. More importantly, the murder weapon bore Darlie's prints--a point she felt compelled to explain away even in her 911 call in the early morning hours of June 7, 1996. "I already picked it up," she said. "We could have gotten the prints maybe." Suspicious prosecutors depicted Routier as a pampered wife living beyond her means, suffering from post-partum depression and angry about her husband's declining computer business. The fact that she claimed to remember so little of the night's events did not help her credibility, even though her own throat had been slashed within two millimeters of her carotid artery.
The jury in Kerrville, Tex., to which the proceedings were moved amid oceans of pre-trial publicity in Dallas, took only 10 hours to return a conviction and four more to recommend the death penalty. Since then, though, one of the jurors, Charlie Samford, has told reporters he now believes Routier is innocent. Why? Photographs he can't remember seeing during the trial, but entered in evidence, show black and blue marks on her arms that convince him she put up a struggle. Then there's the twist added by Waco millionaire Brian Pardo. He entered the case in 1998 at the request of Darlie's husband Darin and funded a reinvestigation that included a polygraph of Darin himself. The Pardo team's shocking conclusion: Darin wielded the knife, motivated by a $250,000 life insurance policy on his wife.
In the beginning, Darin and Darlie were both suspects even though a bloody fingerprint on the coffee table suggested another person might have been at the murder scene that night. James Cron, the fingerprint expert who helped conduct the original investigation, testified at trial that the print appeared to be that of a child but was too unclear to identify. That testimony has now been challenged on two counts. Last spring, Robert C. Lohnes Sr., the ex-NYPD examiner, said he had identified up to nine points of comparison--the fine details that make a print unique--on the coffee table print. And on Sept. 1, Routier's attorneys announced they've now found previously unknown prints of Devon, 6, who died near the much-debated piece of evidence. His paternal grandmother says she discovered the prints this summer as she looked through Devon's school-related memorabilia. Lohnes' conclusion: Devon's prints don't match the one on the coffee table.
Greg Davis, Routier's prosecutor, dismisses the latest development. The physical crime scene, he said, always led him to believe the other son, Damon, left the print. "We know that he moved through the room after he was attacked," Davis told NEWSWEEK. "I think there's an ongoing attempt to mislead the public concerning the strength of the case we presented at trial." The prosecutor acknowledges, however, that investigators failed to fingerprint either of the murdered boys. "It was an oversight on the part of the medical examiner," Davis says.
The case against Routier has other post-trial weaknesses. The original transcript, for instance, contained 33,000 errors, leading to the revocation of the first court reporter's license and reconstruction by a new court reporter, using stenographic notes and audio tapes. Many of the errors are typographical but others are more significant. When a detective was asked about moving evidence at the crime scene, the answer is "yes" in one version and "no" in another. As for a knife found in a neighbor's backyard, an officer testifies there was "flesh" on it in one transcript but "fresh mud" in the other.
Defense attorney Stephen Cooper argues that the new evidence adds another layer of doubt to the state's case. According to the prosecution's theory, Routier stabbed the boys first, planted a bloody sock in the alley to make it look like an intruder had done the deed, then returned to the house to cut her own throat and stab her arm. Cooper contends the print in question was left in Darlie's blood. By that time in the state's scenario, he says, both boys would have been too incapacitated to move.
Routier's future now depends on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, where the decision to grant a new trial ultimately rests. Her death sentence was unusual even if you believe in her guilt. Women who kill their children are generally seen as beset by mental troubles, not as habitual criminals. In perhaps the nation's most publicized killing of children by their mother, the Susan Smith case in South Carolina, jurors rejected the prosecution's call in 1995 that she be put to death for leaving her young children in a car that she caused to plunge into a lake. If only because of Texas' habit of executing those it has found guilty of murder, no one thinks Darlie Routier is done making news.