Tuesday, 23 January 2007

For death row inmate, third reprieve in 1975 Dallas case

For death row inmate, third reprieve in 1975 Dallas case

Convict, surviving victim of attack endure 3 decades of rulings
12:00 AM CST on Tuesday, January 23, 2007
By DIANE JENNINGS / The Dallas Morning News

LIVINGSTON, Texas – Deia Sutton Roberts and Ronald Curtis Chambers have sat front row center in the capital punishment arena for more than 30 long years – since just after the modern death penalty was reinstated.

Ronald Curtis Chambers, 52, has lived on death row - which is now in Livingston - longer than he lived in the free world.

He was set to die Thursday for the brutal murder of college student Mike McMahan in Dallas' Trinity River bottom in 1975; she's the other victim, who survived being robbed, shot, choked and beaten to testify against Mr. Chambers.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed that their torturous tandem journey through the capital punishment world will drag on – possibly for years – after it granted Mr. Chambers a stay of execution.

Though no reason was given, Mr. Chambers' attorneys have raised questions about jury instructions regarding mitigating evidence, an issue pending in the court, and whether keeping someone on death row for decades is cruel and unusual punishment.

Ms. Roberts, a Dallas wife and mother, was disappointed and angry by the latest setback Monday afternoon – but determined.

"This man did an incredibly violent thing," she said. "He's been tried and convicted three times with the same outcome – the death penalty. That's the law, and it should be carried out."

Mr. Chambers, who has lived alone in a 60-square-foot cell on death row for more than 31 years – longer than anyone in state history – could not be reached for comment Monday. His attorney James Volberding, who has worked on the case for more than 10 years, was relieved by the ruling.

"We were all sweating," he said.

The Supreme Court's action halted the execution but has not determined how the case will be handled.

Regardless of what happens, neither side is ready to quit.

"Never," Ms. Roberts said.

"No way in hell," said Janna McMahan, sister of the victim.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins said that if a new sentencing trial is required, his office would seek the death penalty.

"It's pretty clear-cut," he said. "I've seen the pictures, I've read the police report. It's pretty bad."

Mr. Chambers has never volunteered to die or drop his appeals.

"Everybody has survival instincts," Mr. Chambers said in an interview before the stay was issued. "I'm not a person who believes in suicide or self-destruction."

For both sides, the view of the evolving death penalty over the past three decades has been rarely pretty and is always personal.

As a 20-year-old college student, Deia Sutton didn't devote much thought to capital punishment. It had been outlawed in 1972 by the U.S. Supreme Court because of its arbitrary nature. Texas legislators refined the law to meet the court's concerns and reinstated the death penalty in 1974.

Didn't fight abduction

But Ms. Sutton hadn't been touched by violent crime then. She felt invincible. That changed in April 1975, when she and Mr. McMahan were abducted at gunpoint from the parking lot of a nightclub by Mr. Chambers and Clarence Williams.

"We did everything 'right,' " said Ms. Roberts, now 52, who goes by her married name. "We left at a reasonable time, when people were still there. And when they abducted us, everything they asked for, whatever they asked for, we gave it to them. We didn't resist when they said, 'Get out of the car.' "

According to court records, Mr. Williams drove to the Trinity River bottoms with Mr. McMahan in the front seat. In the back, Mr. Chambers, 20, laid a shotgun on the floor and held a pistol to Ms. Roberts' face, threatening to kill her. He took her watch, coat and purse.

After Mr. Williams parked the car on a levee, the two men pushed the couple down the bank and shot them. A bullet lodged in Ms. Roberts' skull. After they crumpled to the ground, Mr. Williams and Mr. Chambers headed back to the car.

In a fateful move, Mr. McMahan then called out to Ms. Roberts, asking if she was all right. Mr. Williams and Mr. Chambers heard him and returned. Mr. Chambers beat him repeatedly with the shotgun. Mr. Williams beat and choked Ms. Roberts, then Mr. Chambers struck her with the gun.

The two men left again, assuming both victims were dead.

Mike McMahan did die. His cranial bone had been driven into his brain, and one of his ribs had fractured and been driven into his lung, according to the autopsy.

Amazingly, Ms. Roberts survived. She managed to stagger to a hotel for help.

Her physical wounds healed quickly, though the bullet remains in her skull. The psychological wounds took longer to mend.

Years later, she can't watch violent movies or read certain novels. She's cautious about going out at night, even to the grocery store, and won't enter a dim parking lot if she feels uneasy. Probably more than most mothers, she worries about her children's safety.

And she still has graphic nightmares.

"There is not a week goes by, I don't think or dream about it," she said. "They are images that just don't go away even after all these years."

Through the years, she has wrestled the horrific memories into a corner of her mind. But the nightmares come more often when a development occurs in the case. Over three decades, developments have occurred frequently, including parole hearings for Mr. Williams, who pleaded guilty and received two concurrent life sentences, three trials for Mr. Chambers, numerous appeals, and now the stay of execution.

Still, Ms. Roberts is steadfast. She has testified at each trial, kept up with the appeals and protested Mr. Williams' possible parole.

If she was ignorant about the death penalty in 1975, she's not anymore.

"I do believe in the death penalty, because I experienced something so horrible that I can't imagine that this was an 'oops, I made a mistake and killed someone,' " she said.

"At some point, I don't care what your upbringing is or the circumstances you're in, you are responsible for your actions ... when you take somebody's life, you have to know there are consequences."

Three times, Mr. Chambers has been tried – in 1975 for the first time; in 1985 after courts determined that he was not warned that information from a psychiatric interview could be used against him; and in 1992 after courts determined that jury selection had been racially tainted.

And three times, he's been found guilty and sentenced to death.

Witnesses, evidence

Ms. Roberts wants criminal defendants to have a fair trial. But she doesn't understand why in cases in which there is little question of guilt, second, third – and now possibly a fourth – chances are given. Mr. Chambers was tied to the killing not only by her testimony and that of others, but also by physical evidence including her purse and the shotgun found in his possession.

"It sometimes appears to me that our system is more concerned about protecting the guilty than the victim," she said. "I think things should be more swift. ... He was guilty in '75 and he was guilty in '85 and he was guilty in '92 and he's guilty in 2007."

During the dark days, she leans on her faith and her family, particularly her husband, Brad Roberts.

"We're trying to constantly overcome the gamesmanship between the lawyers," he said. "They're not arguing his innocence – they're trying to find some little technicality they can violate the system with."

Mike McMahan's sister said she, too, is puzzled by the constantly changing death penalty rules.

"Everybody does deserve a fair trial," Ms. McMahan said. "Some of the things have been retroactive, so to me, I don't think that's fair. ... You go by the rules that you have at that time, and that's what they did."

Dan Hagood, the former prosecutor who handled the Chambers case in 1992, understands their frustration. But the lengthy case is an aberration, he said.

"That's part of the system. ... You have to accept that if we're going to live in a country that ultimately all constitutional decisions are decided by a Supreme Court. ... That's much better than living in the land of Saddam Hussein, where the death penalty is enacted within days."

From where Mr. Chambers sits – in a tiny visiting room cubicle – the reversals and retrials mean the system is working. "They are not doing me any favors," he said. "They are following the law."

But if he is eventually executed, the system won't be working, he said, because the death penalty is "inappropriate for anybody."

"There's always hope for every individual," he said. "I don't care what they did. ... There is always hope."

Mr. Chambers, like Ms. Roberts, said he didn't think much about capital punishment in 1975. He was a 20-year-old from a rough West Dallas neighborhood but had never been in trouble except for minor infractions such as stealing coins from a laundromat.

"I really didn't know much about the legal system," he said, and then, "they weren't executing people."

He avoided answering questions about that night. But he said vaguely that "sometimes you can just be at a place, and everything just seems to escalate. It's not something preplanned."

He didn't want to say anything to his victim or their families publicly. He shook his head, adding: "I don't think they'd want to talk."

But he does feel remorse. "Everybody's got a heart," said the burly, soft-spoken man in a loose white shirt and pants. "Everybody feels remorse."

And he added: "I believe in God. Because I've asked for forgiveness, I don't have to keep asking."

A lot has changed since he arrived on death row. Then, the unit was housed in Huntsville and included a work program. But after an escape attempt, the work program was canceled. In 1999, death row was moved to Livingston, where the inmates are confined to their cells 23 hours a day.

One of the arguments pending before the Supreme Court is that "it's cruel and unusual for him to be sitting on death row for 32 years because of mistakes by the state," said attorney Volberding.

Now 52, Mr. Chambers said as long as he's been on death row, he's "done a life sentence twice." He's lived there longer than he did in the free world.

The argument that an extended stay on death row is cruel hasn't prevailed in lower courts, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. But justices have hinted that "the Supreme Court may take this issue at some time."

The issue affects only a few inmates across the country, however. Only one other inmate in Texas has been on death row more than 30 years. The longest-serving death row inmate in the country is believed to be Gary Alvord, who has been on Florida's death row since 1974.

Defense attorneys are reluctant to push the issue, Mr. Dieter said, because "there is a danger that executions could be sped up" as a result of any such decision.

Mr. Chambers said that he would prefer to be living in the mountains but that his decades behind bars haven't been wasted.

He spends his time reading – anything except science fiction – and following sports by radio, since death row inmates don't have televisions. He also corresponds with European pen pals, who visit occasionally.

"I've been on death row since 1976," reads a description of him on a pen pal Web site. "I am loaded with patience. Love sports, music and good ice cream. I'm a student of beauty and a fan of individuality."

He's also watched his daughter grow up, from behind a plastic barrier, and he sometimes counsels schoolchildren by mail to stay out of trouble.

"Go to school, get an education, respect your elders," he said he writes them. "Be responsible."

Changes in executions

Not only have capital trials and death row changed in the last three decades – so has the execution itself. When Mr. Chambers was sentenced, he was to die in the electric chair. In 1977, lethal injection was adopted as a more humane method. In recent years, that method has been challenged.

Mr. Chambers shrugs off questions about the possible pain of lethal injection philosophically.

"Ain't nobody died and come back [to] say it's painful or not," he said, adding, "There's no humane way to kill somebody."

Deia Roberts declined to comment on whether Mr. Chambers deserves a painless death. But Ms. McMahan did.

"Do you think it matters to him the pain that he put my brother through, which was probably a heck of a lot more?" she asked.

Mr. Chambers appears more bothered by the 1996 law allowing the victim's friends and families to witness the execution.

If it ever happens, he doesn't want any family or friends to be there. And he can't understand why the victim's relatives would want to watch.

"That's all about vengeance," he said. "I don't feel any peaceful closure about that. I think that's kind of mixed up."

If Mr. Chambers is ever executed, Ms. McMahan plans to attend. "It would be too easy for me to stay at home and just distance myself from it," she said. "I do not take this lightly."

Deia Roberts won't be there.

"I don't need to see it to have closure," she said. "If I get the phone call that it has taken place, that's enough.

"I've already seen someone die," she whispers, struggling for composure. "I don't need to see someone else die."

E-mail djennings@dallasnews.com

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