Case Study

An epic year of reporting.

April 2014By Comments

All murders begin as mysteries. In the aftermath of a killing, especially one to which there are no surviving witnesses, there’s often very little to go on: the brutal fact of a dead body, a dark sense of violence and terror hanging in the air, and the scattered details of a crime scene that will hopefully add up to a lead. Gradually, investigators make their way, figuring out who did it, and where, and when, and how. They may even have a theory about why. The case then goes to trial, where, in the bright light of the courtroom, the lawyers present their meticulously assembled evidence for judge and jury. In most cases the mystery has by now been drained from the murder: answers have been supplied, experts have testified, evidence has been produced. Though it remains unfathomably tragic, a narrative has emerged from the wreckage. 

And then there are the other cases, the ones that seem to defy a tidy resolution, the ones whose mysteries persist for decades, even after they have been addressed in the courts. 

A significant portion of this issue has been given over to a story that plumbs the depths of what is, perhaps, the most mysterious case in recent Texas history. Many readers will remember the horrific Lake Waco murders. In 1982 three teenagers were savagely stabbed to death, and their bodies were left in the woods at Speegleville Park, near the shores of Lake Waco. The following year, four men were charged with the killings, which were determined to be the result of a murder for hire that mistakenly targeted the wrong person. They were all sent to prison, and two, David Spence and Muneer Deeb, were given the death penalty. But the story did not end there. Several years after that, Spence’s mother was murdered. Two men were found guilty and given life sentences, only to be released years later when their convictions were overturned. Meanwhile, Deeb, after six years on death row for the lake murders, was awarded a new trial, at which he was found not guilty. Questions swirled about whether the other convictions had been flawed too, but in 1997 Spence, protesting his innocence, was executed. Today, only one of the four defendants remains in prison (the other died there, in 1998). 

About a year ago, senior editor Michael Hall began looking into this case. Mike is one of the best reporters I’ve ever worked with, but to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t sure if his story would ever see the light of day. I knew that other journalists, some even at Texas Monthly, had made previous attempts to write about the Lake Waco murders, only to give up because the story was so complicated. The file of related documents is impossibly daunting, comprising transcripts—some of them many thousands of pages—from six capital murder trials, one sexual abuse trial, and several civil suits; dozens of appellate briefs, depositions, and affidavits; a book, Careless Whispers; and piles and piles of newspaper articles. Scores of interviews would need to be done with the wide variety of people who had been drawn into the case over the years, including detectives, lawyers, journalists, witnesses, family members, friends, associates, spouses, and more. We have a high bar at Texas Monthly. Before a reporter begins asking questions about an old murder case like this, one that is officially closed, he must take steps to understand every detail of the case—consideration and concern for the victims’ families demands it. In the case of the Lake Waco murders, just getting to square one would take many months.

Mike diligently made his way through this material and determined that there were a great many legitimate questions to be asked. To begin with, many layers had been added to the case over time, as advances in DNA testing made new discoveries possible and modern skepticism about older forensic science raised fresh doubts. And just as critical, the entire story had not seen the light of day in decades. It is important to keep capital cases like this alive and under scrutiny, not only because murders should be solved and the perpetrators put away but also because if we the people are going to punish a man with execution, we the people should be prepared to relentlessly reexamine, when the facts warrant it, whether or not he is actually guilty. 

This is a magazine, however, and not a court of law. Though Mike’s story (“The Murders at the Lake”) is a masterpiece, brilliantly reported and beautifully composed (and exhaustively edited and fact-checked by deputy editor Katharyn Rodemann and associate editors David Moorman and David Courtney), it is not subject to the same burden of proof as a lawyer’s argument, and it does not deliver a final verdict. Our goal was not to retry this complex case but to render as vividly as possible the story of how it has haunted those who have ventured, for decades, to solve its tragic mystery.

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