(If you were watching ABC during prime time during June, you may have recognized a Texas reporter, Kathy Cruz of the Hood County News. Kathy was featured in all four episodes of “The Last Defense.” The story below appears in the July Publisher’s Auxiliary, published by the National Newspaper Association, and is used by permission of Pub Aux.)
In Gatesville, Texas, Darlie Lynn Routier spends every day pretty much as she has for last 21 years in her women’s death row cell awaiting her execution by lethal injection.
In the small newsroom of the Hood County News in Granbury, 87 miles away, reporter Kathy Cruz often finds her mind wandering back to her two-year-long re-investigation of the murder case that sent Routier to death row.
Kathy couldn’t dismiss her lingering doubts about Routier’s conviction for murdering her two sons. So she spent her days off and many nights and weekends following the story – talking with lawyers and investigators and forensic experts, trying to determine for herself if justice had been done.
Her book, “Dateline Purgatory: Examining the Case that Sentenced Darlie Routier to Death,” (TCU Press, 2015) explores that murder investigation and trial and shows why she thinks an innocent Texas mom has spent more than two decades on death row.
And now, a new ABC documentary series co-produced by Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis has taken up Kathy’s crusade in a seven-part prime time docu-series that explores Routier’s case and that of Julius Jones, who is awaiting execution in Oklahoma.
The parts of the series “The Last Defense” that examine Routier’s conviction borrow heavily from the investigative work done by Cruz.
Investigating a 22-year-old murder while holding down a full-time job as city and county government reporter at the Hood County News was a daunting task even for Kathy, who’s a self-confessed workaholic.
Kathy’s investigation began when she was working on another writing project and the Routier case – which she remembered from years before – popped into her mind. Kathy stopped writing and began to Google the murders of Routier’s two children. Like many before her, Kathy couldn’t get the gruesome crime scene out of her mind.
Several days later she emailed Routier on death row and asked for an interview – still with no specific project in mind. To her surprise, Darlie Routier agreed to see her. The result was a two-hour prison interview – the first one Routier had granted in four years — that only further piqued Kathy’s curiosity.
“I had no idea where I was headed with this,” Kathy said. “I just knew that this case dealt with many of the Texas criminal justice issues that I had dealt with before, and I wanted to know more.”
Kathy talked to her publisher, Jerry Tidwell, who was intrigued with her investigation and encouraged her to pursue the story.
And so began her year-long investigation into the Routier case, a project pursued at night and on weekends and during vacation time dedicated to her research. She approached the story as a journalist would, poring over police and court records and talking with people who believed Darlie was innocent and others who defended the jury’s verdict.
Kathy was determined to take readers along on her investigation – she wrote it in reporter’s notebook style, sharing the circumstances of her interviews and investigations. As she looked into the murders, she became increasingly convinced that Texas had sentenced an innocent woman to death.
“I still can’t imagine being convicted of something you did not do and having your life taken away from you,” Kathy said.
During her year of book research, she continue to cover city and county government in Hood County. And when her beat stories were filed and the twice-weekly Hood County News went to bed, Kathy turned to her work on the Routier investigation.
“The Darlie book came out three years ago and I’m still exhausted from it,” Kathy said.
Despite the book deadlines, Kathy continued to turn out award-winning news, features and investigative pieces for the News. She has won a wall-full of state and national reporting awards and has several times been selected Journalist of the Year by regional press associations.
Kathy isn’t the only writer who has re-examined the Routier case. More than a dozen books have been written about the murders, some arguing for her innocence and others for her guilt. One author who wrote a book defending the jury’s guilty verdict has since recanted her position and now believes Routier is innocent.
The case itself has a made-for-TV plotline. The brutal murders of young Devon and Damon Routier in the early morning hours of June 6, 1996, put their mother at the heart of one of the most notorious murder cases in modern Texas history — despite her own throat having been slashed to within 2 millimeters of her carotid artery.
Routier claimed that she and her children were attacked by an unknown intruder as they lay sleeping downstairs, where they had fallen asleep watching television.
Routier’s husband, Darin, and their 8-month-old baby were asleep upstairs and were unharmed. Darin Routier said he woke up when he heard a crashing noise and his wife’s screams.
Darlie Routier called 911 at 2:30 a.m. and told police that her home had been broken into and an intruder had stabbed her children and her. Police said that one of her boys had been stabbed with such force that the knife nicked the concrete slab beneath the carpet.
Blood soaked the light-colored carpet and there was a trail of blood through the kitchen. Darlie Routier’s white Victoria’s Secret nightshirt was saturated in blood. She said it was only when she caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror while on the phone with 911 that she realized the blood was her own and that her throat had been slashed.
Dallas County prosecutors rejected her story about the intruder, believing that she had staged the whole thing, including her own injuries.
The documentary series casts doubt on the conviction, drawing heavily from Kathy’s book and interviews she did with the documentary team.
Aida Leisenring, a New York attorney who helped to develop and executive produced “The Last Defense,” said Kathy’s book “made significant contributions” to the documentary’s research on Routier.
“[Kathy] is featured quite a lot in ‘The Last Defense,’” Leisenring said. “She has the ability to understand legal issues and translate them for laypeople.”
Leisenring said Kathy was able to “address the intricate mechanics of legal issues while also seeing the bigger picture.”
“We used her a lot throughout the series – and it was all too easy because her quotes were phenomenal,” Leisenring said. “Her knowledge was exceptional.”
“The Last Defense” has been airing on ABC stations since June 12.
Six women have been executed in Texas since the state resumed the death penalty in 1976 and five other women besides Routier are currently on death row awaiting execution.