Texas convict on a slow road to death

Times Staff Writer

On an April night in 1975, 22-year-old college student Mike McMahan and his friend Deia Sutton were robbed at gunpoint, then shot near a riverbank south of downtown Dallas.

McMahan died after one of the assailants, Ronald Chambers, bludgeoned him with the butt of a shotgun. Sutton was left for dead after the second attacker, Clarence Williams, choked and tried to drown her in the river. She dragged herself to a hotel and called police.

Williams and Chambers were arrested within days of the attack. Williams is serving two life sentences. Chambers was sentenced to death in 1976 by a jury that took 15 minutes to convict him.


Thirty-one years and three trials later, Chambers is still on death row, Texas’ longest-serving death house inmate.

Last week, three days before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection, Chambers won a temporary reprieve from the U.S. Supreme Court, which is considering another case that could affect his.

“It’s like there’s no end in sight,” Mike McMahan’s sister, Janna, said from her home in Washington state. “There’s never any peace with this, but you want to put that fight behind; you want that chapter over with. This has been never-ending, but no way in hell will I ever give up.”

Chambers has been on death row three times longer than the U.S. average of about a decade between sentencing and execution.

A number of inmates have been on death row for more than 20 years, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. In Texas, 15 of the 391 inmates on death row have awaited execution for more than 25 years; in California, 32 of the 655 condemned have been there more than 25 years. The longest-serving death row inmate in the U.S. is Gary Alvord, a Florida killer sentenced to death in 1974.

Though Chambers, the Texas inmate, hasn’t volunteered to die or abandon his appeals, neither has he done anything to slow the case as it wound through the courts, said his lawyer, James Volberding. “This is how the system works. He has not unnecessarily dragged out his case, but here he is.”

Chambers’ first sentence was thrown out because a psychologist hired by the prosecution didn’t warn Chambers that his answers could be used against him by the state. At a second trial, in 1985, Chambers was again condemned to death. That sentence was reversed when a court found that prosecutors had improperly excluded three blacks from the jury.

Chambers was tried a third time, in 1992, and again sentenced to die. Last week, his appeals nearly exhausted, the state was preparing for his execution when the high court issued a stay while it looks at another capital case in Texas. That case raises questions about whether jurors were properly instructed to consider mitigating factors when deciding a death sentence.

Volberding maintains Chambers’ sentencing instructions didn’t allow jurors to fully consider evidence that argued against death, such as his harsh upbringing in a Dallas neighborhood known for crime and drugs.

In addition, jurors in the Chambers case did not hear that his accomplice, Williams, was given a life sentence. The jury foreman believed “Williams was at least as culpable as Chambers, if not more,” Volberding wrote in a Supreme Court brief. “Had [the foreman] known of Williams’ life sentence, she would have considered it a compelling mitigating circumstance demanding equal treatment for Chambers.”

Two jurors, including the foreman, have said they would have voted for life in prison had they known a unanimous vote wasn’t required, Volberding said. “The jury wasn’t fully informed,” he said. “They thought if they didn’t vote unanimously for death or life in prison, the case would have to be retried.”

If Chambers’ case is sent back for a new sentencing trial, Dallas County Dist. Atty. Craig Watkins has said his office would again seek the death penalty.

Chambers arrived on death row Jan. 8, 1976, three days before his 21st birthday. Since then, Texas has executed 381 inmates. Death row has moved from Huntsville, where Chambers worked in the garment factory, to a more isolated spot in East Texas.

At 52, Chambers is a grandfather who gets occasional visits from his grown daughter. He has a radio, books and a small window in his 9-by-9-foot cell, where he spends up to 23 hours a day in isolation. “I’m a student of beauty and a fan of individuality,” Chambers wrote on a prison pen-pal site. “I’ve been on death row since 1976. I am loaded with patience.”

Not a week goes by that Deia Sutton Roberts, the surviving victim, doesn’t think about the attack. “Our justice system moves slowly, but at least it’s moving. It’s really hard on everyone, but I’m definitely not giving up,” she said.

“I am the one that was there; I was a part of this violent crime,” said Roberts, a wife and mother in Dallas. “As long as the [district attorney] pursues this, I will do whatever it takes to see this through.”