I write about crime, punishment, and various other subjects. I live in Austin and leave as often as I can.
Friday, March 1, 2013
David Powell and the Death Penalty
David Lee Powell was on his way to sell methamphetamine on the south side of Austin, Texas. It was shortly after midnight on the evening of May 17, 1978, and he sat in the passenger seat of his girlfriend Sheila Meinert’s red Mustang as they cruised through the neighborhood. He wore white pants and a chain around his neck, and his eyes gaped wide under a stringy mop of long brown hair that looked a bit like a hastily placed wig.
Ralph Ablanedo, a 26-year-old police officer on routine patrol duty, saw that the car in front of him was missing a rear license tag and flashed his lights. Ablanedo did not know that the 27-year-old man in the passenger seat was a former University of Texas honors student, the once-amiable son of a respected rural family who had dropped out of school, taken to drugs, and was now living in ambiguous relation with two women.
He also did not know that Powell, deep in a methamphetamine-induced haze, was carrying $5,000 worth of the stuff, a .45 caliber pistol, an AK-47 with nearly forty rounds of ammunition, and a hand grenade. Ablanedo took the couple’s names back to his car to check for warrants. He radioed the dispatcher, who told him that Meinert was not wanted.
Ablanedo handed Meinert a ticket and returned to his car, asking the dispatcher to check on Powell’s name as the Mustang begin to crawl away. Then, the dispatcher called back and told Ablanedo that Powell had a warrant out for writing bad checks. Following protocol, another young cop named Bruce Mills was sent to the scene as backup.
Minutes later, over his garbled hand-held radio, Mills heard screams. He raced to find Ablanedo lying in the street, shouting, “That damn girl.”
The back window of the Mustang had been blown out by gunfire. Mills cradled Ablanedo’s head in his lap in the grass as he cried out, before succumbing to his wounds, “He got me with the shotgun.”
“He hadn’t even pulled his weapon,” Mills later said.
A group of officers chased Powell and Meinert to a parking lot near an apartment complex and traded shots. A grenade flew toward the police with its pin pulled out, but its safety device in place. The cops caught Meinert and handcuffed her, while Powell ran off toward a high school several blocks away. A few hours later, in the early morning, police found Powell hiding in some shrubs.