November 17th, 2010 Mary OGrady
(Thanks to Mary O’Grady for the guest post. -ed.)
Kenneth Allen McDuff grew from the small-time bully of tiny Rosebud, Texas, to a feared and reviled killer finally apprehended with the help of the America’s Most Wanted television series. By the time of his execution on November 17, 1998, he stood as a symbol of how the best-intentioned prison reforms could bring the most hideous results.*
In 1966, on parole for a string of burglaries, McDuff was first sentenced to death for the brutal murder of three teenagers he kidnapped and killed. The female member of the trio was sexually abused and raped for hours before McDuff used a broomstick to snap her neck “just like you’d kill a possum,” in the words of Falls County Sheriff Brady Pamplin, one of the first generation of Central Texas lawmen to deal with McDuff.
He remained on death row until 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court in Furman vs. Georgia struck down all death penalty statutes in the United States. McDuff’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, which left the possibility of parole.
A rape and attempted murder for which McDuff was never prosecuted resulted in a daughter who at the age of 21 visited McDuff in prison. Her visits ceased after McDuff described his fantasy of taking her to Las Vegas and pimping her out to earn himself a fortune.
A prisoner’s fifteen-page handwritten lawsuit, Ruiz vs. Estelle, exposed conditions in Texas prisons which proved unconstitutionally inhumane, including the use of inmates as guards. (McDuff ascended to the position of boss over fellow convicts following his exit from death row into the general prison population; his perks included a “gal-boy” who traded the usual personal services for McDuff’s protection from white supremacist former gang associates whom he had offended.) Ruling in the Ruiz case, Federal Judge William Wayne Justice placed the Texas prison system under the control of a Special Master and ordered that traditional prison overcrowding must cease.
The Texas parole board was ordered to release 150 prisoners a day, to reduce the prison population to the 50,000 for which there was adequate capacity. Despite a 1982 conviction for attempted bribery of a parole board member, McDuff made parole in early October of 1989. Waco’s U.S. Marshall Parnell McNamara could only ask, “Have they gone crazy?”
Kenneth Allen McDuff was a rarity on Texas’s death row: He was a son of the middle class among the poorest of the poor. On parole, his family furnished him with motor vehicles as needed, and a credit card so that he would not have to carry cash in his chancy, drug-ridden haunts along the Interstate 35 corridor of Central Texas.
Even a new arrest in July 1990, after he chased and threatened some black teenagers and then spewed racist invective at his parole revocation hearing, did not suffice to return him to prison. Six women, three of them drug-addicted prostitutes, have been verified as murder victims of Kenneth McDuff between his parole date in 1989 and his arrest as a fugitive in Kansas City on May 4, 1992; there may well be others whose identities will never be known.
McDuff was tried for the abductions and murders of Melissa Northrup, a convenience store clerk, and Colleen Reed, an accountant. He was convicted and sentenced to death in both cases.
Parole requirements for violent Texas criminals were stiffened substantially as a direct result of McDuff’s career, by the regulations of the parole board and by the Texas Legislature. (The statutes are known as the McDuff Laws.) McDuff by all accounts became the most hated man in the Texas prison system; once returned to death row, he was held in administrative segregation for his own protection from his latest arrival in 1993 until his execution.
Progressive Democrat Ann Richards was Governor of Texas at the time of McDuff’s last trial. A recovering alcoholic, she created an unprecedented emphasis on drug and alcohol treatment for Texas prisoners, the overwhelming majority of whose crimes involved substance abuse of one kind or another. No one appreciated the irony more than she: a governor dedicated to rehabilitation of prisoners was forced to kick off the biggest prison building spree in Texas history, to comply with the federal court’s orders on prison overcrowding while trying to ensure that Texas would never again see the likes of Kenneth Allen McDuff.
It took six years for law enforcement officers to persuade McDuff that his continued refusal to reveal where he had hidden the bodies of several of his victims offered him no sort of advantage. Some remains were located by means of hand-drawn maps, but maps did not suffice in every case. A few days before his execution, an unusual excursion party set out from the Ellis I prison outside Huntsville: a caravan of unmarked cars with dark-tinted glass carried McDuff, locked to a back seat and disguised with a baseball cap, on a “clandestine high security move.” Never allowed out of the car, McDuff directed investigators to the shallow grave of Colleen Reed, whom he kidnapped from an Austin car wash on December 29, 1991. Shortly thereafter, McDuff’s nephew received a reduction in his sentence for drug dealing.
McDuff never expressed remorse for any of his crimes. A lifetime of cheap beer and needle drug abuse was catching up to his liver when he climbed on the Walls Unit gurney on November 17, 1998. His last words: “I am ready to be released. Release me.”
* See Gary Cartwright’s “Free to Kill” Texas Monthly, Aug. 1992, Vol. 20, Issue 8, p. 90.
Also on this date
- 1600: The corpses of John and Alexander Ruthven, for the Gowrie conspiracy
- 1802: Jacques Maurepas and his entire family
- 1909: Leonard Groce and Lee Roy Cannon, American mercenaries in Nicaragua
- 1939: Nine Czech students
- 1720: Captain John "Calico Jack" Rackham