Every murder involves a vast web of people, from the witnesses and the detectives who first come to the scene, to the lawyers and the juries who examine the facts, to the families of the victims, who must make sense of the aftermath. The more traumatic the killing, the more intricate the web. In the summer of 1982 the city of Waco was confronted with the most vicious crime it had ever seen: three teenagers were savagely stabbed to death, for no apparent reason, at a park by a lake on the edge of town. Justice was eventually served when four men were found guilty of the crime, and two were sent to death row. In 1991, though, when one of the convicts got a new trial and was then found not guilty, some people wondered, Were these four actually the killers? Several years after that, one of the men was put to death, and the stakes were raised: Had Texas executed an innocent man?
This week, with the release of its April issue, Texas Monthly will publish “The Murders at the Lake,” an in-depth examination into the Lake Waco murders, for which one man (David Spence) was executed, two others (brothers Gilbert and Tony Melendez) were given life sentences, and a fourth (Muneer Deeb) was sent to death row only to be released after six years.
Texas Monthly senior editor Michael Hall spent a year studying the case, conducting dozens of interviews with the principal and minor players and reviewing thousands of pages of transcripts, depositions, and affidavits, from the case’s six capital murder trials and one aggravated sexual abuse trial. The result is a 25,000-word piece that examines the case through the viewpoint of five people: a patrol sergeant who investigated the crime; a police detective who became skeptical of the investigation; an appellate lawyer who tried to stop Spence’s execution; a journalist whose reporting has raised new doubts about the case; and a convict who pleaded guilty but now vehemently proclaims his innocence.
This article, which will be serialized on texasmonthly.com over the next two weeks, is not a legal document; some of the people involved in the case are dead, others don’t remember much, and even others—including the patrol sergeant who investigated the case and the DA who prosecuted it—refused to be interviewed. Rather, this is a story built around the question that has haunted so many people for so many years: What really happened at the lake that night?
Stay tuned. The first installment of this remarkable story will be published tomorrow.
Collage by Adam Voorhes and Robin Finlay
Hall’s story, destined to join the upper ranks of wrongful-conviction storytelling, documents the usual causes: tunnel-vision policing, dubious scientific and informant evidence, coercive techniques of interrogation and deal-making that backfire on the truth. In this case, they point toward a prospect even more appalling than a life wasted behind bars: yet another Texas execution of a plausibly innocent man.