Nearly 30 years after a grisly crime known as the Lake Waco murders rocked the city and drew national attention, efforts are under way to exonerate the only living defendant through DNA testing of shoelaces used to tie up one of the victims.The Trib story is behind their paywall but a helpful reader forwarded a copy.
If the testing were to show the wrong people were convicted in the 1982 slaying of three teenagers, the ramifications could be much greater than simply freeing a man from prison.
Because one of the four defendants in the case, David Wayne Spence, was executed, exoneration also could constitute the first proof of wrongful execution in modern U.S. history.
A fascinating element to the controversy stems from the fact that the ex-wife of the DA who convicted the four men is helping lead the charge to seek DNA testing that might clear them. She approached the Governor's office in 2008, who referred her to the UT-Austin innocence clinic to seek funding for DNA testing. There's been some inexplicable holdup at the lab, however, and
Ace Trib reporter Cindy Culp wrote that "Questions about whether the right people were prosecuted for the crime have long swirled around the case. The issue got the most attention before Spence’s 1997 execution. But the questions have been present in one form or another during nearly the entire saga." Indeed, in 1997 New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote a column on the case titled "The Impossible Crime." Law enforcement even consulted psychics seeking leads.
The main evidence to secure the convictions were unreliable forensics and jailhouse snitches, evidence that author Frederic Dannen began to question while writing a book about the 1986 murder of Spence's mother, Juanita White:
White’s slaying was not connected to the lake murders, but the two cases — investigated by [the same detective] and prosecuted by [then-DA Vic] Feazell — bore some similarities.
In both cases, the biological evidence used to tie the defendants to the victims’ bodies consisted of marks identified as human bites.The holdup stems from a private lab contracted to do the testing, which not only didn't process the evidence in a timely manner but also won't give any information to the defense team about why. Attorneys are considering legal action against the lab.
[Muneer] Deeb’s trial was moved to Cleburne because of publicity surrounding the case. He received a death sentence, but an appeals court gave him the right to a new trial, which led to him being acquitted in 1993.
The supposed matches in each case were made by the same prosecution expert. But bitemark evidence increasingly has been challenged by forensic experts as unscientific. Some now say it should not be used to positively identify a suspect.
Plus, the reputation of the prosecution’s expert later suffered a blow. In an unrelated Florida case a month after Spence’s first trial, he testified that certain human remains belonged to a Florida runaway after comparing an enlarged photo of her against the corpse’s teeth. Two years later, the girl turned up alive. Also, in both the Lake Waco and White murder cases, defense attorneys claimed that information about other suspects was withheld from them by prosecutors. And in both cases, defense attorneys complained about the state’s use of jail inmates’ testimony, which they contended was inherently unreliable.
[Prosecutors], however, maintain their investigations were solid and the convictions were valid.
The father of one of the victims, Raymond Rice “said he always has thought the right people were convicted. But he is not surprised DNA testing is being done because of the number of exonerations in recent years. If the testing were to prove Anthony Melendez is innocent, he should be released from prison, Rice said. 'I’m sorry if they made a mistake,' he said. 'But I can’t go back. Nobody can.'”