Life goes on for Texas death row inmate

  • Article by: LIANNE HART , Los Angeles Times
  • Updated: February 2, 2008 - 4:31 PM

It took a jury 15 minutes to convict Ronald Chambers; 31 years and three trials later, he's still awaiting execution.


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 river bank 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 currently serving two life sentences. Chambers was sentenced to death in 1976 by the 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.

In late January, 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," the victim's sister, Janna McMahan, said from her home in Washington state. " ... This has been never-ending but no way in hell will I ever give up."

Chambers, now 52, 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 Death Penalty Information Center. 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 United States is Gary Alvord, a Florida killer sentenced to death in 1974.

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

Volberding maintains that 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 for that sentence, Volberding said.

If Chambers' case is sent back for a new sentencing trial, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has said his office will again seek the death penalty.

Today, Chambers is a grandfather who gets occasional visits from his grown daughter. He has a radio, books and a small window in his 9-foot-by-9-foot cell, where he spends up to 23 hours day in isolation.

Not a week goes by that Deia Sutton Roberts, the surviving victim, doesn't think about the attack. "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."

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