‘The Last Defense’ Finds Reasonable Doubt in a Dubious Double Murder Conviction

The Last Defense,” ABC’s entry into the wrongful conviction documentary genre, opens with the highly charged case of Darlie Routier, who was suspected of killing her two sons, aged five and six. Emotionally blackmailed by the then-recent headline-grabbing case of Susan Smith, who confessed to killing her own children, the jury found Routier guilty of first degree murder on Feb. 4, 1997. She currently sits on death row at the Mountain View Unit prison in Gatesville, Texas, awaiting execution by lethal injection. Routier steadfastly maintains she is innocent. Executive produced by Viola Davis and husband Julius Tennon, “The Last Defense” sets up the crime in the first hour episode, and presents the trial, the case and a profile of the defendant in subsequent installments.

Routier claims on the morning June 6, 1996, a six-foot white male intruder broke into her home and stabbed her two sons, Devon and Damon, and herself, while her husband, Darin was asleep upstairs with their 7-month-old son Drake. Darin never doubted his wife’s innocence. The series includes his first interview in nearly 15 years. The journalists speak with investigators who have worked for years without pay because the evidence never quite fit the puzzle the prosecution tried to put together. The panel also breaks down the evidence with prosecutors Greg Davis and Toby Shook.

According to police, then-26-year-old Routier said she woke up in the middle of the night to a man attacking her with a knife. She was stabbed several times, including a deep gash to her throat that barely missed a major artery. She told the police she followed the intruder as he ran through the kitchen and out the garage. A screen door had been slashed, which appeared to be where he came in and out.

“They just stabbed me and my children,” Routier yelled to 911 operators at 2 a.m. local time. First responders found her holding a towel to a stab wound on her neck. Her sons sustained deep stab wounds to the chest. Devon, 6, was found dead at the scene. Routier and Damon were transported to Baylor Hospital in Dallas. Damon was still alive when first-responders arrived, but died in transit.

The Rowlett Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Division found inconsistencies between Routier’s story and physical evidence. The bread knife that slashed the patio screen and the butcher knife used in the stabbings both came from same the knife block in the family’s kitchen. The blood evidence suggested Routier wasn’t stabbed on the couch. The blood stains on the floor of the house were more consistent to someone walking through the scene than someone running or chasing. The police also determined that the kitchen sink was used in a cleanup.

The investigators concluded it was an inside job. They also noted that Routier showed no emotion in the two weeks before she was arrested, even smiling for cameras at a birthday party for one of her dead sons she didn’t want to cancel because people had already bought presents, but cried when arrested.

What the police didn’t find was an athletic sock with the blood of both boys on it. It was later discovered a few doors down, outside the house. The interviewed experts agree the police should have changed their suppositions when the evidence was discovered, but they continued undeterred.

Routier’s followers, who call themselves the “Cult of Darley,” believe the young mother is innocent. Routier was well-liked in the neighborhood, proudly splurging on breast implants after her husband began making money, and known as a natural charmer. Her followers believe the prosecution misread her frame of mind, and that the crime scene was staged by the Roulette Police Department detectives, who were out of their depth with such a brutal crime.

“The Last Defense” moves at a brisk network pace, building the foundations on the characters involved even as it moves forward in the probe. Slick production values keep it just this side of “murder porn,” although the photographic evidence of Routier’s hospitalization are graphically displayed. The series explores the incident with more screen time than cable channel Starz gives its prosecutorial misconduct series “Wrong Man,” but with a prime time urgency replacing the steadfast detective work of the cable series.

The Last Defense” premieres June 12 at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.