Powell executed for 1978 slaying of police officer

Family of Ralph Ablanedo expresses relief after 32-year wait; David Lee Powell makes no final statement.

Credit: Alberto Martínez/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
After the execution of David Lee Powell was carried out Tuesday evening, loved ones of victim Ralph Ablanedo left the prison unit, including, from left, friend Bruce Mills and widow Judy Mills. Powell made no final statement before he was put to death.
By: Tony Plohetski and Chuck Lindell
Austin American-Statesman
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

HUNTSVILLE — Declining to make a final statement, David Lee Powell was executed Tuesday for killing an Austin police officer 32 years ago as seven members of his victim's family watched silently from a nearby window.

Strapped to the execution gurney with intravenous lines already inserted, Powell kept his eyes locked on members of officer Ralph Ablanedo's family but did not acknowledge Warden Charles O'Reilly's invitation to speak.

His head still turned toward the window, Powell half closed his eyes as the lethal combination of drugs began flowing at 6:10 p.m.

Ablanedo's widow, Judy Mills, gripped the hand of son Steve Mills and cried quietly as the drugs took effect.

A doctor pronounced the once-promising honors student dead nine minutes later. He was 59.

Afterward, Bruce Mills, a former Austin officer who was Ablanedo's friend and later married his widow, said it felt as if a weight had been lifted.

"Relief would be the word to describe it," Mills said. "No more hearings. No more appeals."

Powell's death concluded a 32-year case that featured three trials and multiple appeals, agonizing Ablanedo's family but providing Powell's friends and supporters with the slim hope that his execution could be avoided.

One late appeal, filed last week, argued that jurors mistakenly labeled Powell a continuing threat to society, a requirement for imposing the death sentence.

Supporters argued that it was unconstitutional to kill Powell based on information shown to be incorrect after he spent three decades as a model inmate — helping illiterate prisoners learn to read and counseling others on death row.

Travis County prosecutors responded by reminding the courts that jurors in two retrials — ordered after successful appeals in 1991 and 1999 — had already considered evidence of Powell's good behavior and still sentenced him to death.

Texas courts rejected that appeal Monday, as did the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, shortly before Powell's execution.

In addition, Powell lawyer Richard Burr filed an execution-day appeal accusing Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg of providing false statements to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. The board this month considered Powell's request to have his death sentence reduced to a life term.

The Court of Criminal Appeals denied that claim in the early afternoon, before prosecutors could file arguments denying the allegation.

About 150 current and former Austin police officers traveled to Huntsville for the execution — meeting for lunch in a local hotel to watch a video about Ablanedo's life. Most retired officers were wearing black "Journey to Justice" T-shirts. Some wiped tears from their eyes.

After being escorted to the prison by Huntsville police, the Austin officers assembled in seven lines —those who had worked with Ablanedo stood at the front — to serve as an honor guard for the slain officer's family.

The officers stood at attention and saluted as Bruce and Judy Mills; Ablanedo's 87-year-old mother, Betsy; and other family members were greeted and given hugs by Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo.

Acevedo said later that Ablanedo's relatives were overwhelmed by the display of support.

"They were very touched," he said, adding that the encounter was emotional for him as well.

"When you see his widow and Bruce Mills and his mother start to cry \u2026 it's hard not to feel their pain," the chief said. "A mother should never have to bury her child."

Once the prison doors closed, the officers broke ranks and milled around.

Suddenly, nearby protesters fired up their microphone: "We are here because in one hour the State of Texas is going to murder David Lee Powell," a voice loudly proclaimed — greeted by cheers from many of the police officers.

"David Powell the 27-year-old drug addict is not the same person as the sober and remorseful 59-year-old man who is being executed today," Nell Warnes, who had visited with Powell since 2004, told protesters later. "From my long-term interaction with David, I am certain that he is no longer a threat to our society."

When it became apparent that Powell was going to be executed, the four dozen protesters, kept about 100 yards from the officers, stood silently.

Powell spent his final day packing personal property — much of it bound and loose papers — into about 10 orange mesh bags for delivery to Huntsville's Hospitality House. Friends can pick up the items there for delivery to his relatives, who were not present in Huntsville.

Powell's day had begun before dawn, with guards reporting that he was eating breakfast at 3:48 a.m.

Defense lawyer Richard Burr met with Powell for a half-hour in the afternoon.

"He was tired," Burr said. "He hasn't been sleeping much. I think he really felt the weight of all these years. He was very, very tired, and I think very ready to be free of the brutality of living on death row. Not that he wanted to die, but the weight of all this confinement was very heavy on him today."

Powell didn't seem to be fighting his situation, though he showed great interest in the appeal that was pending at the U.S. Supreme Court, Burr said.

"He certainly wasn't letting go," Burr said.

Powell, who grew up on a dairy farm and graduated as valedictorian of his high school class at 16, moved to Austin from Campbell, a small town northeast of Dallas, to attend the University of Texas.

He had a nearly perfect SAT score and enrolled in UT's honors program in 1968 but had trouble adjusting to the faster pace of Austin. In his sophomore year, Powell became involved in the anti-war movement and began experimenting with drugs, dropping out of UT in 1970 and sliding deeper into drug addiction, particularly methamphetamines.

He was on his way to Killeen to sell $5,000 in drugs — his girlfriend Sheila Meinert was at the wheel of his red Mustang — when Ablanedo pulled them over in South Austin on May 18, 1978.

Firing through the rear window, Powell shot Ablanedo 10 times with an AK-47. Ablanedo, 26, left behind a wife and two sons, then ages 5 and 1.

Powell also exchanged gunfire with other officers who cornered him in a parking lot a short time later. A grenade tossed by Powell failed to explode, and nobody was hurt in the gunfight. Powell was arrested without incident about 4 a.m. and convicted of capital murder four months later.

Meinert served four years of a 15-year sentence for being a party to attempted capital murder. Now living near Seattle, she has declined to comment on Powell or his execution.

As his execution date approached, Powell apologized to Ablanedo's family, writing a four-page letter dated Dec. 31 in which he took responsibility for "the evil I have done."

He also granted a May interview with the Austin American-Statesman — after years of declining to sit with reporters — in which he also apologized to the residents of Austin.

"Thirty-two years ago, I was responsible for an enormously evil act, and it must have affected most or all people who lived in Austin and their level of comfort, the way they saw themselves and their neighbors," he said. "And no apology I could give would be powerful enough to express my regret for that.

"But every person is more than the worst thing they have ever done, and I am no exception."

In Austin, former homicide detective Ken Williams joined about 50 current and former police officers at Scholz Garten to remember Ablanedo.

Williams, the lead investigator in the Ablanedo case, said Powell's death was like a major chapter in his life closing. And when news of Powell's execution came about 6:20 p.m., the officers held up their drinks and made a simple toast: "To Ralph."

tplohetski@statesman.com, 445-3605; clindell@statesman.com, 912-2569

Additional material from staff writer Isadora Vail.