Guarding Death's Door

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Texas District Attorney Ronald Earle supports the death penalty, but has doubts

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"So it's almost as if most of the people we send to death row, it's like we can say, 'Look what we made you do.' Most of them — if they had someone who had intervened in their life at an appropriate point, this would not have happened. And that's sad to realize. That doesn't necessarily make you squeamish about using the death penalty, but it does make you more discerning about it."

Earle has always been hard to pin down politically and culturally. He's not an unreconstructed liberal — and there are plenty of those in Austin — nor a conservative Democrat. He's an oddity. He grew up on a cattle ranch yet never eats beef. (Though when teased about that at a restaurant recently, Earle ordered the venison to show he would eat red meat.) He drives the beat-up pickup required for a Texas politician, but it's a Nissan. He has the scraggly hands of someone who broke several fingers playing football as a young man, but he has a deep fondness for academics. Three years ago, he and his wife Twila taught a University of Texas (UT) course earnestly titled "Re-Weaving the Fabric of Community."

His weak spot for intellectuals was evident in 1978, when he got his first death case. A young police officer, Ralph Ablanedo, had stopped a red Mustang for a traffic violation on a spring night. Prosecutors said the passenger, possibly fearing that the cop would find the drugs he was carrying, reached for his AK-47. Officer Ablanedo was shot several times (he was rushed to the hospital but died in surgery). A frantic chase ensued. The gunman, David Powell, fired at other officers but eventually surrendered to police.

Earle, who had been D.A. for less than 18 months, was pretty green. When it came time to decide whether to seek death, he consulted Robert Kane, a UT philosophy professor. Kane has written extensively about how to encourage what he calls the moral sphere--"an ideal sphere in which everybody's rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are being respected," as Kane describes it. Sitting in Earle's home in the summer of 1978, he told the D.A. that sometimes, society must use the death penalty to send a message that it will protect people in vulnerable situations — people like cops alone on the streets. But, Kane told Earle gravely, "the burden is on you to show that no lesser punishment would do that job."

Earle took that burden seriously, and by the end of his second death case, also in 1978, he was worn out. The defendant was George Clark, who had abducted a young woman from Sears, raped her and stabbed her 38 times. Earle won a death sentence, but instead of trumpeting his victory, he gave a morose press conference calling it "a sad day for everybody." When a friend of the victim's brought him a congratulatory bottle of whiskey, Earle was aghast. "This is not a celebratory event," he scolded. Citing the administrative demands of running a large D.A.'s office and the talent of his staff prosecutors, Earle never again personally prosecuted a death case.

In the late '80s, Earle seemed to flirt with outright opposition to capital punishment. His office brought no death-penalty cases in 1988 or '89 and only one the following year. He took to telling people he was worried that capital punishment had become "a coarsening factor in the culture." Then along came Kenneth McDuff. Decades earlier, in the summer of 1966, McDuff and a friend abducted three teenagers — two boys and a girl. After robbing them, McDuff shot each boy in the head several times. Then he and his accomplice repeatedly raped the girl before crushing her throat with a broom (he was called the Broomstick Killer). Not surprisingly, he was sent to death row. But in 1972, when the Supreme Court ruled the U.S. death-penalty system unconstitutional, McDuff's sentence — like those of some 600 other death-row inmates across the U.S.--was commuted to life.

In 1989, as pressure mounted on prisons to relieve overcrowding, McDuff was paroled along with many other longtime inmates. He settled in Waco, Texas, and it wasn't long before young women in the area went missing. Authorities believe McDuff killed as many as eight before police finally caught on to him in 1992. Earle's office prosecuted McDuff for the murder of Colleen Reed, a 28-year-old accountant he had kidnapped from an Austin car wash, raped and killed. In 1994 McDuff was again sentenced to die, and he was executed four years later.

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