By STEVE McGONIGLE and DEBRA DENNIS / The Dallas Morning News Tiara Ellis contributed to this report. Thursday June 19, 2008 12:00am CDT
Convicted child killer Darlie Lynn Routier won the right from the state's highest criminal appeals court Wednesday to use DNA to test her contention that an unidentified intruder murdered her young sons in their Rowlett home. Reversing a Dallas judge's decision, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled unanimously that Mrs. Routier, 38, is entitled to have more sophisticated genetic testing performed on a few pieces of hair and blood evidence collected from the 1996 crime scene. State District Judge Robert Francis denied Mrs. Routier's request for testing last year after concluding it could not exonerate her. But the Austin court said Judge Francis had misinterpreted the 2001 law that permits genetic tests for inmates. District Attorney Craig Watkins predicted the Austin court's ruling would have no effect on Mrs. Routier's capital murder conviction and death sentence. "This administration has reviewed the case, and we have no doubt about Mrs. Routier's guilt," Mr. Watkins said in a prepared statement. "We are confident that the new testing will reaffirm the jury's decision." Mr. Watkins, who inherited Mrs. Routier's case when he took office last year, has made DNA testing a hallmark of his administration. His office had been discussing an agreement to grant testing but this week rejected it, Mrs. Routier's attorney said. Mrs. Routier's family hailed the decision as a breakthrough in a 12-year effort to prove her innocence in the stabbing death of her 5-year-old son, Damon. She was also accused in the death of a second son but never tried on that charge. "This is a first step and major win for Darlie and a major win for others," said Mrs. Routier's mother, Darlie Kee. "People have been exonerated because of DNA, and we believe that will hold true for Darlie." Steve Cooper, a Dallas attorney for Mrs. Routier, said he was pleased the court agreed to order genetic testing but was cautious about his client's chances of winning a new trial. "It's not a long shot," he said, "but it's certainly not more likely than not." The outcome hinges on connecting at least two pieces of biological evidence to the same person who is not a member of the Routier family, Mr. Cooper said. The appeals court said that while prosecutors presented sufficient evidence to convict Mrs. Routier of stabbing her son to death, biological evidence of an uninvited person in the home could have raised enough doubt among jurors to acquit her. The court did not grant Mrs. Routier all the tests sought by her attorney, but it did declare that she had met the legal standard to test pubic and facial hairs and bloodstains from clothing that was previously tested but yielded no clear results. "If we get, for instance, a bloodstain," Mr. Cooper said, "we know it had to occur that night. And we get a facial hair from the same person and it's not a Routier, then we -- as the court says -- have gone a long way to proving the intruder theory." The grisly murders of Damon Routier and his older brother, Devon, while they slept inside their home the night of June 6, 1996, were headline news. Their mother, who had knife wounds she blamed on an intruder, was arrested in the killings 12 days later. She was tried and convicted only in the murder of Damon. The state's case against Mrs. Routier was circumstantial. Prosecutors contended she murdered her boys to salvage a lavish lifestyle in decline. The defense blamed the killings on an unidentified intruder who attacked when he was discovered. The jury deliberated nine hours before convicting Mrs. Routier of killing Damon and another four hours before sentencing her to die by lethal injection. She remains on the state's death row for women in Gatesville. Twice, the Austin court has rejected appeals to overturn her conviction. The ruling on DNA tests did not state any conclusions about her guilt or innocence. The judges found that both the state's theory and the defense's version of what occurred the night of the attacks had strengths and weaknesses. "We think that adding DNA evidence that would corroborate the appellant's account of an unknown intruder to the evidentiary mix could readily have tipped the jury's verdict in the appellant's favor," Judge Tom Price wrote for the court. The court rejected defense requests for DNA analysis of untested evidence or tests that had already yielded results. But it declared that the law allowed for retesting with technology not available at the time of the original trial. Brian Wice, a Houston attorney who argues frequently before the Court of Criminal Appeals, said its decision was notable but not extraordinary. "It's certainly not something along the lines of Halley's Comet," he said. Greg Davis, who was the lead prosecutor in Mrs. Routier's case, said the Austin court was "bending over backward" to give Mrs. Routier a chance to make her argument. But he said he was not concerned that testing would alter the outcome. "At this point," Mr. Davis said, "I favor the testing because it's going to resolve any doubts that anyone has about this case." Mrs. Kee said she believes the tests will ultimately free her daughter. "I'm looking forward to the day that Darlie shakes hands with Craig Watkins," she said. "I believe that day will come." Staff writer Tiara Ellis contributed to this report.;