American Justice - Blood Relations   View more episodes

Aired at 07:00 AM on Friday, Jan 01, 2010 (1/1/2010)      View all transcripts from this day


00:00:01as long as I can remember.
00:00:03>> Kurtis: Outside, officers worked to gather evidence and secure the crime scene.
00:00:09The local media had already descended on the house, even as the victims' family and friends were beginning to arrive.
00:00:18Marlo McRae, Martha Durrett's 22-year-old daughter, collapsed as she was given the news.
00:00:25>> I remember everybody kind of coming toward me, and I just fell to the ground and-- And I just said "no" because I knew.
00:00:39And I remember I couldn't feel anything, and I just fell and, and I said, tell me, tell me, and they said that they're gone.
00:00:48They're dead.
00:00:53>> Kurtis: It didn't take long for the family's shock to turn to anger.
00:00:59They told Detective Johnston the killer could be only one person: Martha Durrett's estranged husband, Joe.
00:01:07>> I said immediately, "Joe, Joe did it." >> We knew he did it.
00:01:10You know, I mean, there's just that inside of us that knew he did it.
00:01:14>> Kurtis: Later that morning, Sergeant Johnston brought several family members back to the station to learn more about Joe Durrett.
00:01:24They told the detective that Joe and Martha had recently separated, after 15 years of marriage, and that she had moved in with her sister, Linda.
00:01:33Durrett, they said, hadn't had a full-time job in years and lately had made a career out of stalking his wife.
00:01:41>> It completely consumed his life.
00:01:43I don't think he evehad anything else going on besides my mother.
00:01:47It was about her.
00:01:50>> Kurtis: Just the week before, family members said, Durrett had shown up at Linda's house uninvited around midnight.
00:01:59He told Linda he was there to make sure his wife was in bed alone.
00:02:06>> She said, "What are you doing?" And she said he looked like he saw a ghost.
00:02:14He was sweating.
00:02:15His eyes were huge.
00:02:16He was breathing hard.
00:02:19>> Kurtis: Durrett left soon after, and Linda reported the incident to police.
00:02:27But Marlo McRae told the detective the harassment and the threats didn't stop.
00:02:33The next morning Durrett followed her and her mother as they met with friends at a nearby restaurant.
00:02:41Later that night at a bar, he picked a fight with a man in their group.
00:02:46The following morning, Marlo spotted him perched in a tree, taking pictures of her mother.
00:02:53>> I remember saying, "Joe, please, please leave us alone.
00:02:58Please just move on." >> Kurtis: Mcrae told police that on Monday, April 3rd, two days before the bodies were found, she and her mother went to lunch together for the last time.
00:03:12Her mother promised to call her that night, but she never did.
00:03:16Nor did she return messages the next day.
00:03:21McRae said by Tuesday evening she was worried enough to mention her concerns to her husband.
00:03:27>> I said, "Something is not right with my mom.
00:03:30What is going on?" And I said, "You know," I said, "It scares me because of all the things that Joe's been doing." And he said, "Well, if you don't hear from her tomorrow, then, you know, we'll go check on her." >> Kurtis: They never got the chance.
00:03:52After hearing McRae's story, Sergeant Johnston dispatched officers to track down Joe Durrett.
00:03:59He knew the people of Pasadena would demand a speedy resolution to such a savage crime.
00:04:06>> They expect their district attorney and their detectives and prosecutors to be aggressive and find out the truth and then go from there.
00:04:15>> Kurtis: But in this case, the truth would turn out to be far more elusive than it first appeared, and justice would prove Foods rich in folic acid like white bread and leafy greens can help prevent some birth defects before you even know you're pregnant.
00:08:10>> Kurtis: April 5, 1995: Outside Houston, Texas, police were investigating a gruesome double murder.
00:08:20>> The scene of an apparent double homicide.
00:08:232825 Westside.
00:08:25>> Kurtis: Sisters martha Durrett and Linda Harrison had been found that morning, bludgeoned to death.
00:08:34Suspicion had immediately fallen on Martha Durrett's estranged husband, Joe.
00:08:41That afternoon, police began searching the area for his white pickup truck.
00:08:46With local TV reporters in tow, they tracked him down driving in Southeast Houston.
00:08:54>> How ya doin', there, Kemosabe?
00:08:58>> Kurtis: Durrett told the officers he was on his way to his mother's house.
00:09:01His bags were in the truck.
00:09:04As Durrett was sitting in the squad car, a reporter called out to him for a comment.
00:09:10>> Do you know anything about the murders of two women in Pasadena overnight?
00:09:20Do you know anything about that?
00:09:23>> No!
00:09:26>> Kurtis: Durrett was taken back to the police station, where he sat down for an interview with Detective Ron Johnston.
00:09:33Johnston says that from the start, Durrett's behavior seemed bizarre.
00:09:39>> He immediately pulled out a comb, started combing his hair excessively through the rest of the interview.
00:09:44And he had a gold cross around his neck that he pulled out from his shirt, and in between telling me certain things, he started kissing the cross and combing his hair at the same time.
00:09:56It was obviously strange.
00:10:00>> Kurtis: According to Johnston, Durrett blamed the murders on his wife's "doper friends," the crowd he said she'd been running with since she moved in with her sister.
00:10:11In telling the story, however, Johnston says Durrett slipped up.
00:10:16>> He says, "That's what ders do if you rip them off for dope.
00:10:19They beat you to death." And at that point I realized that I hadn't told him how they were found or how they were killed, and it had not been on the news about the condition the bodies were in.
00:10:36>> Kurtis: By this time, Johnston had come to view Durrett as the most likely suspect in the murders.
00:10:43But it would take days for the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office to process hair and blood samples taken from the scene.
00:10:51For the moment, the detective had no evidence to tie Durrett to the crime.
00:10:56And so he had to let him go.
00:10:59With his lead suspect walking the streets, Johnston began digging deeper into Joe Durrett's background to see if he could find something to get him back to the station and behind bars.
00:11:13Joe Durrett was a 28-year-old former army medic when he met Martha Parmer in 1978.
00:11:20At the time, Joe was working off and on for his parents' business, buying and selling used auto parts.
00:11:27Martha was a lively 26-year-old medical assistant.
00:11:31They had both been married before.
00:11:33Joe had a son, Martha a son and daughter, though only her daughter Marlo lived with them after they married.
00:11:42>> They just seemed like they were just-- They could not be without one another.
00:11:46My mom loved him very much.
00:11:48I believe he loved her very much.
00:11:51Marlo says her relationship with her stepfather was often tense.
00:11:57Still, Joe was on hand for the birth of her daughter Jordan in 1993.
00:12:03>> There's Grandpa.
00:12:07>> Hi, Grandma!
00:12:08>> Hi!
00:12:10I'm real excited.
00:12:12I've been here since 6:00 this morning.
00:12:14>> Kurtis: Family members portray Martha as loving and kind.
00:12:19Joe Durrett, on the other hand, they describe as intense and combative, with a host of quirks and tics.
00:12:27He whistled constantly, seldom sat still, and often blurted out inappropriate comments.
00:12:36Kim Trevino, Durrett's sister-in-law at the time, says Martha was able to keep him in line.
00:12:43>> We would be talking at dinner or whatever, and Joe would start with his popping and moving around, and shifting in his chair and-- to where we couldn't even hold a conversation.
00:12:53And Martha would tell him, "Would you stop that?" And just yell at him and tell him to stop it.
00:12:59>> Kurtis: It was, by all accounts, a passionate relationship, yet it was also volatile and, on at least one occasion, violent.
00:13:09In 1985, Martha had to be taken to the hospital after Joe repeatedly slammed her head against the floor during a fight.
00:13:18Shortly after she recovered, the couple reconciled.
00:13:23>> I don't know if she knew how to move on and how to be without him, because he was-- he was almost like a part of her in every way, and it just-- I don't think she thought of survival without him.
00:13:38>> Kurtis: But in the months before the murders, the Durretts' marriage had apparently fallen apart.
00:13:44In January, Martha moved out and moved in with her older sister, Linda, who had recently returned to Pasadena after separating from her fifth husband.
00:13:53Soon after, Martha began seeing other men.
00:13:56By February, according to family members, Durrett was stalking her.
00:14:02>> She called me, and she told me, "Kim, y'all gotta do something about Joe.
00:14:06Can y'all please keep him away from us?" >> Kurtis: Police discovered a report filed just a week before the murders that supported the family's allegations.
00:14:18According to the report, an officer had found Joe Durrett sitting in the driver's seat of his truck across the street from the house on Westside.
00:14:28Durrett told the officer he was watching to see if his wife was messing around with another man.
00:14:34The officer sent Joe away with a warning, though not before noticing that on the seat next to him was a so-called shark billy, a short, blunt club with a lead weight at the end.
00:14:45>> Joe told the officer that he's a fisherman and he used that for hitting fish over the head and sharks, when he brings them aboard.
00:14:53>> Kurtis: To detective Johnston, it was an ominous detail, one that seemed to point to a possible murder weapon.
00:15:00But the most incriminating information was still to come.
00:15:06According to Durrett's own mother, around 2:00 a.m.
00:15:09on Tuesday, April 4th, more than a day before the bodies were discovered, her son had shown up on her doorstep, crying.
00:15:16>> He was obviously upset and asked if he could spend the night there.
00:15:21And she allowed him, and while she was in her bedroom, he came in, sat on the edge of the bed, very despondent.
00:15:29>> Kurtis: He told her he had just gone by the house and that he'd looked in the bedroom window.
00:15:34"The girls," he said, "are dead." Durrett's remark appeared to indicate a prior knowledge of the murders, and it gave Detective Johnston what he needed to secure a warrant.
00:15:47The next night, April 6th, Pasadena police took Durrett into custody while they conducted a search of his home.
00:15:56Detectives sprayed the house with luminol, a chemical that glows when it comes into contact with blood.
00:16:03>> We found what indicated blood trails and footprints in the garage going toward the washing machine.
00:16:10And we found a khaki pair of pants and a white shirt that also luminoled indications of blood also.
00:16:19>> Kurtis: While police were busy processing evidence, Detective Johnston got a call from the station saying Durrett wanted to talk about the murders.
00:16:26This time, Johnston says, Durrett all but confessed.
00:16:33>> He said, "Ron," he says, "You know who did this.
00:16:36You and I know who did this.
00:16:38You're just gonna have to prove it." That convinced me.
00:16:41I knew it was him.
00:16:44>> Kurtis: But a transcript of the interview obtained by American Justice tells a different, if no less bizarre story.
00:16:52In it, Durrett admits to having stopped by Linda's house between 1:00 and 2:30 Tuesday morning.
00:16:59He says he looked in the window and saw the bodies on the floor.
00:17:03But Durrett also insists that he did not kill the girls and says that he didn't come forward because he was scared to death he'd be accused.
00:17:14Durrett tells the detectives that he loved his wife with all his heart and that even though they'd separated and he'd filed for divorce, he had still hoped to reconcile.
00:17:25He goes on to blame Linda, whom he calls a drug user and accuses of sleeping around, for leading Martha astray.
00:17:34At the same time, he reveals that he and his sister-in-law had had an affair and that Martha found out about it.
00:17:43The interview ends without a confession.
00:17:46Once again, Pasadena police had to send Durrett home.
00:17:50And that's when the story got even stranger.
00:17:54[gunshot] >> At approximately 8:45 that evening, I received a call that Joseph Durrett had been shot in front of his residence.
00:18:06>> Kurtis: Neighbors had found Durrett lying by the mailbox in his front yard, bleeding from five gunshot wounds to his shoulder and abdomen.
00:18:14He was rushed to the hospital and into surgery.
00:18:18Word of the shooting reached the Parmer family at the funeral home where they had gathered to make arrangements for Martha and Linda's burial.
00:18:26>> As angry as I was and as convinced as I was that he did this to my mother, I did not want him to be shot and die.
00:18:36I wanted him to go to prison and suffer for what he did.
00:18:43>> Kurtis: While durrett lay in critical condition, police in Pasadena got the break they'd been hoping for.
00:18:48Microscope analysis indicated that a hair found at the crime matched Joe Durrett.
00:18:54Police promptly went to the hospital, handcuffed Durrett to his bed, and arrested him for murder.
00:19:00But what appeared to be an open-and-shut case was about to come unraveled thanks to a reluctant whistleblower in the Harris County DNA lab.
00:21:49[Male announcer] To the men and women Of the United States armed forces, The USO delivers the joys and comforts of home.
00:21:56Even out here.
00:21:57Find out how you can help at >> Kurtis: April 1995, Pasadena, Texas.
00:23:13A week after police found his wife and sister-in-law beaten to death and five days after he himself was shot in front of his home, Joe Durrett lay handcuffed to a hospital bed, charged with two counts of capital murder.
00:23:29While his condition appeared stable, Durrett's legal prognosis was grim.
00:23:35Pasadena police had already uncovered enough to point to motive and opportunity.
00:23:42And a hair found at the crime scene had been matched to the 45-year-old.
00:23:46On top of all that, prosecutors in Harris County hadn't lost a capital murder case in more than 20 years.
00:23:54>> I don't think people in Harris County like crime very much.
00:23:58And I think they want to deal with criminals in a very severe way.
00:24:04People in Texas and Harris County feel like the death penalty can be very appropriate in some situations.
00:24:10>> Houston defense attorney Katherine Scardino was appointed to serve as Joe Durrett's lawyer.
00:24:16She knew it would be a tough case.
00:24:19>> There were two dead women who had been beaten to death and a prosecutor telling me that it was almost like a slam dunk.
00:24:27>> Kurtis: At first, scardino made little progress, in part, she says, because prosecutors took the unusual step of withholding the police file from her.
00:24:37>> That's only occurred in cases that I've handled a handful of times, and certainly never, ever in a capital murder case.
00:24:46>> Kurtis: Scardino spent six frustrating months trying to build a defense with almost nothing to go on.
00:24:52Then, in late October, she got a call from another lawyer, a friend, with a tip.
00:24:57>> He just said I needed to be doing a little bit more checking into what was going on with the evidence that was being kept in the medical examiner's office.
00:25:09>> Kurtis: A few days later, Scardino drove to the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office in Houston.
00:25:16She met first with the hair analyst who had microscopically matched Joe Durrett's hair to a strand found in Martha Durrett's hand.
00:25:27>> She called it an identical match, which kind of got me going, because even I knew that in hair analysis, there is no such thing as an identical match.
00:25:37>> Kurtis: Scardino was surprised to learn that the analyst had tested only three of the more than thirty hairs found at the scene.
00:25:46>> So all that evidence had been sitting in the medical examiner's office all those months, and nobody had had the time to examine it properly or the time to do what was the right thing to do with the evidence they had when a man's life is on the line.
00:26:02>> Kurtis: To scardino, the meeting seemed to hint at a weak spot in the prosecution's case.
00:26:08Her next meeting would blow the case wide open.
00:26:13Doctor Elizabeth Johnson was a rising star at the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office.
00:26:19Only 35, she had already been the head of the DNA lab for three years and had worked on dozens of cases.
00:26:31Johnson was a reluctant messenger with an explosive message: that the state's forensic evidence did not, in fact, tie Joe Durrett to the crime and that prosecutors had known this for more than two months.
00:26:44>> It was clear that Durrett was being set up without adequate proof.
00:26:50And the laboratory people and the district attorney wanted it that way.
00:26:57>> Kurtis: Johnson said she first became suspicious back in June when the hair evidence was delivered to her for testing, the same hair the lab analyst had called an identical match to Joe Durrett.
00:27:10>> And the hairs were long blonde hairs.
00:27:13You could have used my hair and substituted it in, and that was what they looked like.
00:27:18We had seen Joe Durrett on newscasts, and we knew he didn't look like that.
00:27:24>> Kurtis: Johnson ran a dna analysis on the hair.
00:27:27She found that none of it could be matched to Joe Durrett.
00:27:30She ran tests on blood taken from the crime scene.
00:27:36None of it matched Joe Durrett either.
00:27:40She also tested traces of blood found in Durrett's house and on his clothes.
00:27:46Once again, nothing could be conclusively linked to the murders.
00:27:52In August, Johnson had called the DA's office and told one of the prosecutors about her findings.
00:27:58>> He said to me, "What?
00:28:00You're telling me I don't have any evidence on my case?
00:28:04What happened to the hair analysis that was done?
00:28:07This woman told me that those hairs were a match to Joe Durrett." So initially he was very angry.
00:28:12>> And he did not pick up the phone and call the defense attorney as he should have done at that point, because that is exculpatory evidence, and I am entitled to know that, whether he wants to tell me or not.
00:28:29>> Kurtis: Three weeks later, Pasadena police showed up at Johnson's lab, seized all the evidence, and sent it to a private lab in Maryland for testing.
00:28:41Convinced the state was trying to railroad Joe Durrett, Johnson said she decided to blow the whistle.
00:28:49>> I was public enemy number one.
00:28:51And they're going to try to do something to discredit, to remove me, to undermine our work, because if they could discredit the work of my lab, they could try to salvage the prosecution case against Joe Durrett.
00:29:05>> Kurtis: For his part, prosecutor Chuck Rosenthal says the DA's office simply had concerns about some of Johnson's methods and denies putting any pressure on the crime lab.
00:29:16>> We accept the laboratory as being independent, and we just go with what they tell us the truth is.
00:29:24Now, if you have a reason to suspect that you may not have the truth, that's one thing, but no, we don't-- we don't pressure anyone to tell us what we want to hear.
00:29:36>> Kurtis: It was now up to defense attorney Katherine Scardino to confirm Elizabeth Johnson's stunning claims.
00:29:43Her first step, she knew, was to get the results of any tests the Maryland lab had done on the evidence.
00:29:50>> So when I called up there, they wouldn't talk to me.
00:29:52And I'm going, "Why won't you guys talk to me?" This is--you know, this is my evidence.
00:29:56It's not the state's evidence.
00:29:57It's my evidence just as much as it is theirs, but they would not.
00:30:04>> Kurtis: In early december, after several weeks of legal wrangling, the Maryland lab revealed its results.
00:30:10While not excluding Joe Durrett as a suspect, the lab said that none of the evidence conclusively tied him to the crime.
00:30:19>> So even though they went to all this expense and all this trouble of moving this evidence, it didn't get them anywhere.
00:30:26There was nothing that connected Joe Durrett to the deaths of these two women.
00:30:32>> Kurtis: One week later, December 13th, the district attorney's office dropped the charges against Joe Durrett.
00:30:39Still recovering from his gunshot wounds, the 46-year-old was free.
00:30:45For Katherine Scardino, it appeared to be an unequivocal victory.
00:30:50>> I thought that I had worked hard and I had done a good job for my client, and I was happy.
00:30:55It was over.
00:30:56I thought that would be the end of the case, and little did I know that that was really only the beginning.
00:31:03>> Kurtis: On deceer 5, 1996, a year after Joe Durrett walked out of jail, prosecutors in Harris County indicted him a second time.
00:31:13Little had changed in the interim.
00:31:15No significant new evidence had come to light, which is why some found it suspicious when, two weeks later, whistleblower Elizabeth Johnson was fired from her job at the county crime lab.
00:31:26The official reason was insubordination--that Johnson insisted on working too many hours.
00:31:32It was just one more dramatic twist in a case where the most shocking development was still to come.
00:35:39>> Kurtis: December 1996.
00:35:43A year after charges against Joe Durrett were dropped, the the 47-year-old was back in a Houston, Texas, courtroom, indicted once again for the murders of his wife, Martha, and her sister, Linda.
00:35:59>> They've got all this pressure from all these citizens out there, family who want the murderer convicted, and they think it's Joe Durrett.
00:36:07So, folks, let's try it again.
00:36:09>> I feel like somebody's going to have to pay for the murders of these two women, and we feel like that should be Mr. Durrett.
00:36:14>> Everybody at the time was eager to get it to trial and they were telling us, you know, "Even if we get a not guilty, we would at least put it to a jury." >> Kurtis: Among those calling loudest for Joe Durrett's prosecution was the victims' 42-year-old brother Clay Parmer.
00:36:34>> All along, I've wanted him to come and face what he has done.
00:36:38We want him to go to trial and to see our faces and to realize that he took from us two precious people.
00:36:45>> Kurtis: Parmer, a husband and father of two, ran the family's construction business.
00:36:51He had been one of the first on the scene, the morning the bodies were found, and the state expected to call him as a witness.
00:37:04But with the trial date approaching, allegations emerged that he was harboring a shocking secret.
00:37:12The defense learned that Parmer may have been paying his sisters for sex.
00:37:18>> I had a check that I had found that was for $1,000 payable to Martha a couple of days prior to their deaths.
00:37:27And it was signed by Clay Parmer.
00:37:31So I wanted to find out why-- you know, why he was writing her a check for $1,000.
00:37:37>> I mentioned it to him because I didn't want him to be up on the stand cold and hear them for the first time in a cross-examination question, "Isn't it true that you had sex with your sisters?" He just dismissed it as being, you know, "How would anybody suggest that?" >> Kurtis: But in early may, the weekend before the trial was set to start, Parmer phoned Rosenthal with a very different story.
00:38:04>> He called my house and said that he was not going to be available, that his family was upset.
00:38:10I could hear his wife crying in the background.
00:38:15He had made admissions to his wife that in fact there was something to the allegations that he had had sexual relations with one or both of his sisters.
00:38:25So he wasn't going to show up because he wasn't going to embarrass the family.
00:38:30And I wasn't going to be able to find him and nobody was going to be able to find him.
00:38:34>> I was very angry that Clay did decide to bring this up at that time.
00:38:41I mean, I thought, not only angry but, "What the hell are you thinking?
00:38:47I can't imagine it." I don't think that that could be true.
00:38:53>> Kurtis: The following monday, May 5th, Rosenthal informed the judge and the defense about his conversation with Clay Parmer.
00:39:02>> The bottom line is, he told Chuck Rosenthal that he had paid his sister $1,000 in return for her having oral sex with him.
00:39:12I was, needless to say, shocked.
00:39:16>> Kurtis: It was a bizarre turn of events and a boon for defense attorney Katherine Scardino, who had suddenly been handed an alternate suspect.
00:39:25Clay Parmer had a key to his sister's house.
00:39:29He'd written one of them a $1,000 check.
00:39:32And now, most importantly, it could be argued that he also had a reason to want his sisters dead.
00:39:38>> What it told me was, there's perhaps a motive.
00:39:42Was there blackmail?
00:39:43>> Was his sister blackmailing him because of the sexual part of it?
00:39:50>> Kurtis: The trial of joe Durrett began later that same day at the Harris County Courthouse in Houston.
00:39:58The state sought to convince the jury that the defendant had been driven to kill by the collapse of his marriage.
00:40:06>> When people know each other's most intimate secrets and know each other and know what buttons you can push that will absolutely send the other party off into, you know, all sorts of fits and craziness...
00:40:21>> Kurtis: Prosecutors detailed Durrett's bizarre behavior, his alleged stalking, and his admission that he had seen the bodies more than a day before they were discovered by police.
00:40:34>> Joe Durrett knew about the murders before anyone else did or could have.
00:40:40>> Every case that you have, you're always gonna have something that's weak.
00:40:45You've got a pink underbelly.
00:40:46And my pink underbelly in this trial, obviously, was Joe going by that house, peeking in a window, as he did on more than one occasion, and he sees two women dead on the floor.
00:41:00>> Kurtis: Prosecutors hammered home the horrific nature of the killings through crime scene video and photos and through the testimony of family members, including Martha Durrett's daughter, Marlo.
00:41:14>> Every thought I have of my mother is the bloody room that she died in-- I can't remember pretty thoughts of her.
00:41:28More than anything, it's how my mom suffered.
00:41:33>> They wanted us to feel sorry, you know, for the family and for what had happened, which we did.
00:41:38Oh, my God, we did.
00:41:41>> Kurtis: The state then turned to its physical evidence.
00:41:45A crime lab technician took the stand to describe how they tested Joe Durrett's house with luminol, a chemical that glows when it comes in contact with blood.
00:41:57>> It was positive for luminol in a lot of places, for instance in the bathroom, around the washing machine and some other places where an individual who could have committed the offense would have taken off clothes or tried to hide the evidence by washing or bathing or whatever.
00:42:15>> Kurtis: But on cross-examination, defense attorney Katherine Scardino got the technician to concede that luminol reacts to more than just blood.
00:42:27>> It glows if you spray it over detergent or some other chemicals that you may find around your house in the laundry room, for instance.
00:42:37>> Kurtis: The state then called to the stand the analyst who had originally matched Joe Durrett's hair to hair found at the crime scene.
00:42:46Prosecutors handed the jury samples of the evidence to examine for themselves.
00:42:52But the tactic backfired.
00:42:54>> To me, with the naked eye, even I could tell that it was not Joe Durrett's hair.
00:43:01>> Kurtis: Katherine scardino focused her defense on the credibility of the state's physical evidence.
00:43:08Her most important witness: The former director of the Harris County DNA lab, Elizabeth Johnson.
00:43:16>> I didn't know or have an opinion whether he was guilty or innocent, but the physical evidence to tie him to that crime was not there.
00:43:26>> Kurtis: Johnson testified that neither the blood nor the hair evidence could conclusively link Joe Durrett to the murders.
00:43:35In their cross-examination, prosecutors went after Johnson hard.
00:43:39They reminded the jury that she'd been fired six months earlier and called into question her testing methods.
00:43:45>> I was clearly Joe Durrett's co-defendant, clearly.
00:43:48The questions asked were about my findings, my protocols.
00:43:53They were very accusatory to me, very hostile.
00:43:58>> Kurtis: On redirect, johnson defended her methods and blamed her firing on "the political circumstances of this case." >> She was very professional, very articulate.
00:44:14She knew her stuff.
00:44:15She was the defense's case.
00:44:17She really was.
00:44:20>> Kurtis: Defense attorney Katherine Scardino did have one more card to play.
00:44:25Repeatedly during the trial, she had reminded the jury of Clay Parmer's absence.
00:44:29In her closing argument, she raised the specter of incest, implying that Parmer may have had a motive for murder.
00:44:37The insinuations were not lost on the jury.
00:44:40Their verdict is next.
00:44:49You tell us at DAD IS THE MOST Important job in a man's life, but it doesn't have to be hard.
00:47:28All it takes is a few minutes of your time.
00:47:31Because the smallest moments can have the biggest impact on a child's life.
00:48:46>> Kurtis: By the spring of 1997, in Houston, Texas, the double murder of sisters Martha Durrett and Linda Harrison had been making news for more than two years.
00:49:00On May 12th, after six days of trial, the fate of the accused, Martha's husband, Joe Durrett, was finally put in the hands of a jury.
00:49:11>> For the most part in the jury room, their gut feeling was that he probably had done it.
00:49:18That was their gut feeling.
00:49:19But we could only go by the evidence that we had.
00:49:25The following afternoon, the four-woman, eight-man jury emerged with its verdict.
00:49:31Martha's Durrett's daughter, Marlo, was standing in the courtroom behind prosecutor Chuck Rosenthal.
00:49:40>> And he saw the jury, and he said, "It's not good." >> Martha's daughter was sitting right next to like the end juror seat, and I thought, "I don't want to sit in that seat; I just don't want to sit in that seat," because, you know, that's just going to be too emotional.
00:50:00>> So they, the jurors continued to walk in, and then they, you know, handed the verdict over.
00:50:06>> The judge said not guilty.
00:50:10I mean, he just said it out loud just like that.
00:50:12And then of course, you know, Martha and Linda's families just were screaming.
00:50:17It was real chaos.
00:50:18>> I remember my legs feeling like I couldn't stand on them, and I fell to the ground and-- And I actually screamed out to Joe, "You're a murderer.
00:50:33You know you're a murderer and you know you did this!" >> I couldn't move, and I heard Marlo telling Joe-- she called him a murderer.
00:50:48And I remember I didn't-- I remember somebody pulling on me, telling me to get up, that we had to leave.
00:50:55>> It was heartbreaking, it was.
00:50:57Because to know that they felt so firmly that he had you know, killed Martha and Linda, and then for us to come back with a not guilty.
00:51:09>> And I didn't want to leave because I wanted to tell him what he had done.
00:51:19>> Kurtis: The emotion spilled over into the hallway outside the courtroom.
00:51:24>> Murderer.
00:51:25>> Kurtis: Where a distraught Marlo McRae confronted defense attorney Katherine Scardino.
00:51:30>> How do you think we feel?
00:51:32Our mother was murdered.
00:51:33Yeah, I never told-- I never heard you tell me you were sorry!
00:51:36Never one time did you tell me you were sorry.
00:51:39>> She's not sorry.
00:51:40>> You don't care.
00:51:41You have no heart to represent a murderer.
00:51:44I said, "Every night when you lay your head on the pillow, I want you to remember my face because that's what you're going to have to live with for the rest of your life." He will pay.
00:51:52He's guilty and he knows he murdered them.
00:51:55He knows he did it.
00:51:56>> They will probably say, well, this system didn't work this time, you know.
00:52:01It normally works, but this time, it didn't work.
00:52:03Well, my response to that is, "I'm so sorry for your loss, but yes, this system worked." >> Kurtis: The verdict marked the first time in more than 20 years that Harris County prosecutors had lost a capital murder case.
00:52:19>> I would not ever disagree with the jury's verdict.
00:52:23But I certainly believed that we had enough information to take it to 12 citizens and have them decide on the basis of what evidence there was, whether or not we proved his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
00:52:36>> The prosecution and the police, they were so convinced that Joe Durrett had done these crimes that they had it set in their mind, and they didn't realize that these jury people sitting here did not know that, and that you-- you've gotta prove this to us.
00:52:54>> Kurtis: For whistleblower Elizabeth Johnson, the jury's decision offered a measure of satisfaction.
00:53:02>> If I hadn't been there and given the testimony about the inside information that I had, Joe Durrett would have been on death row.
00:53:12>> Kurtis: The defendant himself declared the verdict a vindication.
00:53:16>> We knew the truth all along.
00:53:18It just had to be proven in court.
00:53:20I didn't kill anybody.
00:53:23>> What struck me most about Joe, from the very beginning 'til the last moment that jury came back with a verdict, his story never changed to me, never.
00:53:33>> I have grieved as much as anybody about the loss of Martha and Linda.
00:53:38I loved them as much as any of them did.
00:53:42I don't think their family realizes the extent of my grief.
00:53:53>> Kurtis: To date, no one else has been charged with the murders of Martha Durrett and Linda Harrison, and the near-fatal shooting of Joe Durrett remains unsolved.
00:54:05Meanwhile, the debate persists over whether an innocent man was nearly railroaded by the state or a killer was set free.
00:54:17>> There is a vicious murderer out there.
00:54:20Well, there definitely is.
00:54:22Whether it's Joe or whether it's somebody else, there's still a murderer out there because nobody's been convicted of the crime.
00:54:27There's no doubt.
00:54:29>> We are supposed to convict people with evidence that rises to a certain level.
00:54:34And if that evidence does not rise to that level, then if you abide by your oath as a juror, then the proper verdict will be in all cases like that, not guilty.
00:54:46>> There's a difference between someone being innocent and being not guilty.
00:54:52Joe Durrett was found to be not guilty.
00:54:55Whether or not he was innocent, only he and God know.
00:55:00>> Kurtis: A year after the verdict, DNA expert Elizabeth Johnson filed suit against Harris County for wrongful termination, arguing, in essence, that she'd been fired for speaking out.
00:55:11A Houston jury agreed and awarded her $315,000 in damages.
00:55:18As for Joe Durrett, he refused to speak with American Justiceon camera, saying he's afraid for his life.
00:55:25Someone tried to shoot him once, he told us, who's to say it won't happen again?
00:55:30Durrett continues to insist he is innocent.
00:55:33No matter what the truth is, he can never be re-tried for the murders.
00:55:39ForAmerican Justice, I'm Bill Kurtis.
00:55:52Captioning made possible bytouchstone television productions, llc and cbs [hisses] mom, dad! dad, we have to go!
00:56:33The house is on fire, we have to get out of here!
00:56:35Come on, we have to go!
00:56:36The phone's dead--go!
00:56:37Come on, we gotta go!
00:56:39Come on. stay down.
00:56:41Father: Stay down.
00:57:42[Gasps] [coughing] [coughs] [wheezing] [mother coughs] somebody!
00:58:12Somebody, please help us!
00:58:16[Coughing] [ringing] [ringing stops] [fire rumbles]