In a battle between the latest in DNA technology and the slow, steady destructive power of entropy and 6 feet of soil — a face off staged in Dallas’s oldest cemetery — the outcome wasn’t even close.
Venice Parker has been buried in Oak Cliff Cemetery since the fall of 1953, when she was the victim of a rape and murder that left the city reeling. In the chaos following the crime, District Attorney Henry Wade and the Dallas Police Department took a decidedly old-school approach to solving the crime. They simply rounded up dozens of African-American men for questioning.
One of those men was Tommy Lee Walker, brought in four months after the murder. In what appears to have been a coerced confession after hours of questioning, the 19-year-old with no criminal record told police what they wanted to hear, that he had killed Venice Parker. He quickly recanted, saying he had confessed only because he was so scared. There was never any physical evidence linking him to the murder. He lived about 5 miles from the crime scene and had no car. Nine alibi witnesses testified that they were with him before, during, and after the crime occurred — and he was at the hospital early the next morning for the birth of his son.
None of this mattered to the all-white jury that heard the case. He was found guilty within an hour and sentenced to death in the electric chair. That sentence was carried out on May 12, 1956. Walker’s last words: “I am innocent.”
In a May 2016 article in D Magazine, the case against the conviction was laid out, and something extraordinary happened. People stepped up to help find the truth.
Dr. Jeffrey Barnard, Dallas County’s medical examiner for decades, the man behind dozens of DNA exonerations, offered his time and expertise to test any physical evidence that might still exist in Venice Parker’s remains.
Jimmy Lucas, of Fort Worth’s Lucas Funeral Homes, offered his time and experience in securing state approval and assisting in the exhumation.
Joe Parker, Venice Parker’s son and only living relative, was 4 years old when his mother was murdered. Disturbed about the questions in the case, he gave permission for his mother’s body to be exhumed in a search for answers.
Rev. Wes Magruder, of Kessler Park Methodist Church, donated his time to make sure that Venice’s exhumation and reburial were done with reverence and respect.
Thursday morning, at Oak Cliff Cemetery, the digging began. After about an hour, with 4 feet of earth excavated by a backhoe, Barnard saw what he thought was a human bone. Shovel work began, and fabric and pieces of metal emerged from the earth. It became clear that Venice’s casket had collapsed under the weight of the world above. There was no remaining tissue to test. There was no chance of retrieving DNA that could have ruled out Tommy Lee Walker as the killer.
In the end, there was little left except the hope that science will eventually help us make sense of our past and find answers to difficult questions like this. Tommy Lee Walker’s family did not get the proof they had prayed for. But doubts about Walker’s guilt remain.
Barnard believes that, as DNA technology advances, we will discover the truth about these kinds of cases, about our history of injustice, about who we were and who we are. Everyone involved believed the compelling case demanded this final step, regardless of the results.
“There was a compelling story in this case and I think that that makes it worthwhile. There are questions that need to be answered, whichever way the results went,” he said. “Unfortunately it didn’t work out, but if you’ve got a circumstance that warrants that kind of question, or that kind of analysis, then I think you should do it.”
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
That didn’t happen on Thursday. Someday it will.