Nearly 30 years after a grisly crime known as the Lake Waco murders rocked the city and drew national attention, efforts are under way to exonerate the only living defendant through DNA testing of shoelaces used to tie up one of the victims.
If the testing were to show the wrong people were convicted in the 1982 slaying of three teenagers, the ramifications could be much greater than simply freeing a man from prison.
Because one of the four defendants in the case, David Wayne Spence, was executed, exoneration also could constitute the first proof of wrongful execution in modern U.S. history.
A state district judge Friday gave Walter “Skip” Reaves, the attorney representing Anthony Melendez, 52, the last surviving defendant in the Lake Waco triple murder case, an OK to proceed with an effort to have further DNA tests performed on evidence collected during the investigation of the 1982 slayings of three teenagers.
Reaves and author Fredric Dannen arranged on their own for a private lab in California to do DNA testing, but that lab now refuses to allow them to transfer testing to another facility where different methods could produce better results.
The ruling Friday clears the way for Reaves proceed with an effort to try to compel the transfer of testing.
McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna didn’t oppose the motion Friday, but said he reserves judgment about whether he’ll fight additional testing.
Reaves has said he hopes the evidence will ultimately exclude Melendez and perhaps identify the real killer.
Melendez was one of four men charged in the July 1982 murders of Raylene Rice, 17, Jill Montgomery, 17, and Kenneth Franks, 18, in what prosecutors say was a murder-for-hire scheme gone wrong.
Fishermen found the bodies of the three teenagers at Speegleville Park on Lake Waco.
They had been stabbed repeatedly and the two girls had been raped.
Melendez and his brother Gilbert were sentenced to two life terms after pleading guilty to charges stemming from the murders.
Gilbert Melendez died in prison in October 1998.
David Wayne Spence, who prosecutors said was hired by Waco store owner Muneer Mohammad Deeb to kill a female employee, Gayle Kelley, in order to collect on her insurance policy, but who mistook Montgomery for the woman and killed her and the other two teenagers in a case of mistaken identity, was executed in April 1997.
Spence was twice convicted of capital murder in trials in 1984 in Waco and the next year in Bryan.
After the first trial, the Melendez brothers agreed to a plea deal that would spare them from the death penalty in exchange for their testimony against Spence in the second trial.
They both later said they had nothing to do with the murders of the teenagers and pleaded guilty because they believed they would have been sentenced to death if they had gone to trial.
Deeb was also convicted and sentenced to death, but won a new trial and was acquitted in 1993.
He died in Dallas County in November 1999.