By Tracy L. Karol
I am unabashedly in favor of the death penalty. Those who say it doesn't deter crime need only do a Google search for the name "Kenneth McDuff." When the US Supreme Court overturned the death penalty in the 1970s, requiring individual states to revisit their respective laws, his sentence, like those of all others, was commuted to life in prison.
Back to Kenneth McDuff. He was a serial killer. When he was imprisoned and sentenced to death the first time, he'd already served time for burglary. Within a few years he was back, surfacing in Fort Worth where he shot two teen boys in the face (both died) and raped their female friend, also strangling her with a broomstick. That got him the death penalty in 1968. Those were the crimes he is known to have committed at the time, though it's likely he got away with more.
Amazingly, and this is what not only shocks me and should shock and disgust everyone who reads this, Kenneth McDuff was paroled. Not because of good behavior (it's doubtful he ever behaved well in his life), not because of time served, not because of any good reason at all. Kenneth McDuff was sentenced to death for the murders and rape he committed. That sentence should have been carried out. But it wasn't. Because the US Supreme Court decided to impose its will on the states - and I'm not stating that individual states at the time might have been wrong in how each carried out death penalty cases, but clearly a blanket moratorium without safeguards was not the answer either - a known sadistic serial killer, namely Kenneth McDuff, was paroled in Texas.
Why? Why was Kenneth McDuff paroled? That is a question that has been hotly debated, but basically it comes down to overcrowding in Texas prisons. There was a breakdown in the system and a man sentenced to death, who never should have seen the outside of a prison (he should have been put to death, period), was set free. And within a very short time after his release he was on a murdering spree again.
Kenneth McDuff spent 17 years in prison the first time he was on death row. It's unclear how many people he killed before and after he got out, but in 1991 he crossed paths with a beautiful Austin accountant, 28-year-old Colleen Reed, when she stopped to wash her car and was abducted by McDuff and an accomplice. She was never again seen alive. Though her body was never found before his trial, witnesses placed McDuff at the scene and his accomplice testified that McDuff kidnapped, tortured and raped her before killing her and burying her body at a dump site. I believe the words his accomplice used in testifying against McDuff were that he said he was "going to use this bitch up." I could be wrong on the exact details, but frankly I'm too sickened to look them up again.
On March 1, 1992, McDuff kidnapped Melissa Ann Northrup from the convenience store where she worked. She was a 22-year-old pregnant mother of two young children. Her body was found a few weeks later in a gravel pit, her arms tied behind her. She had been strangled with a rope. Up until the minutes of his execution for her murder, his attorneys were trying to delay his sentence. Though Northrup's murder took place a few month's after Reed's, he was sentenced to death by two different juries for the crimes and the penalty for Melissa Northrup happened to come first.
When Kenneth McDuff committed his killing spree between Austin and Waco -- and police believe he may have killed as many as a dozen other people - I was a young mother myself, living in Austin and going to college at the University of Texas. Like most women, I was afraid. If Colleen Reed, a bright, successful woman who happened to stop at a car wash mere days after Christmas, could go missing without a trace, it could happen to anyone. The story was everywhere. Fear was in the air. It was within weeks of the infamous "Yogurt Shop Murders." (Four teen girls were killed at a yogurt shop where two of them worked, then the store was set on fire to hide the crime; it was almost a decade before arrests were made and the case is still hotly debated).
Kenneth McDuff never told, during the trial or while he was in prison, where Colleen Reed's body was buried. His accomplice did not remember the exact spot. Her family had no closure on that point; they could never put her to rest.
By the time Kenneth McDuff was scheduled to die for the murder of Melissa Northrup, things had changed for me. I had graduated from UT, worked as a reporter, then went to work for the Austin Police Department in what is basically the media relations department (I no longer work there; I have disabling epilepsy and don't work at all, but that's not relevant to this story).
Melissa Northrup's murder was not an APD case, but Colleen Reed's most definitely was, and detectives had never given up on finding her body. I give tremendous credit to the officers of the Austin Police Department - they are among the finest men and women I have ever worked with, and their commitment to victims is absolute. These officers and detectives take a lot of heat from the public for a variety of reasons - mostly because of special interest groups, but that's another story for a different time. Still, they work the cases and Austin remains one of the safest large cities in Texas with a homicide solve rate that is excellent.
Back to the execution of Kenneth McDuff for the murder of Melissa Northrup, who was kidnapped from Waco. He still had the death sentence for Colleen Reed hanging over him, not that it mattered at that point, except that her body had never been found. But in those last frantic days, Kenneth McDuff's nephew was in jail on a drug charge. I suppose there was someone he must have cared about, at least a bit, because in exchange for lenience against his nephew, McDuff finally agreed to lead detectives to the body of Colleen Reed.
As I stated, I worked at APD during that time (1998), and while I was sickened by McDuff, I was relieved that Colleen Reed's family finally was able to bring her home. I remember detectives saying that had McDuff not shown them where she was buried, they likely never would have found her. At the same time, the skeletons of several other bodies were found nearby - little doubt that they had met the same fate as Colleen Reed, Melissa Northrup, and so many others.
Kenneth McDuff, one of the most evil monsters I ever came across, finally died by lethal injection on November 18, 1998. He was 52.
Kenneth McDuff wasn't executed until he was 52 years old. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that, if he had been released at that age, he would have gone right back to murdering women. He had been doing so since at least 1968.
Now the US Supreme Court has commuted all death penalty sentences in all states for those who committed the crime when they were younger than 18. I'm not sure what "life" is in every state, but in Texas it is 40 years. "Life" in prison should mean exactly that -if you are sentenced to life, you stay in prison until you die. Instead someone like Kenneth McDuff could commit multiple murders at 17, get out of prison at 57, and start killing again. Trust me, I've seen older monsters than that.
But what really has me concerned is that other countries that make one of the key drugs used in lethal injection (deemed the most humane way to execute someone, and what set me on the path to writing this story, as you see in the link at the top of this page) are threatening to withhold it from the United States because they do not like our stance on the death penalty. Well, I don't particularly like many of the policies of these countries. I think they border on socialism. I don't think they have a right to dictate to us what we do with our country. Maybe we need to rethink our trade policy, because for the most part they certainly need us more than we need them. But that isn't going to happen, I'm sure.
I doubt that I've changed the mind of anyone who is against the death penalty, and that really isn't my purpose in writing this. But every time I read a story about the death penalty, the writer seems to inject groups of homicide survivors who oppose it. I'm here to tell you that there are plenty of homicide survivors who have no problem with seeing the person who murdered their loved one executed. Both the families of Melissa Northrup and Colleen Reed were interviewed when Kenneth McDuff was executed; neither showed remorse at his death.
There are monsters among us. If the US Supreme Court is going to continue to chip away at states' rights in these matters, then there must be a better method for keeping these monsters put away for good. When someone hears that a criminal is going away for life, they should have the assurance that it actually means something, that it is not an arbitrary number. I know the climate is changing. I know that there is little I can personally do about it. But I will always advocate for crime victims.
I hate that this story was about Kenneth McDuff, but it had to be to make a point. I wish I could have told you more about the lives of Melissa Northrup, Colleen Reed and the many other victims he killed. They are the ones who matter. Their lives mattered. The sum of a story should not be about their deaths. I apologize for that. In this case, I needed to show you what a monster Kenneth McDuff was - and I didn't even come close. But his victims mattered. They had lives that had nothing to do with him. They were beautiful people who should still be alive today, raising their families, going to work, living their dreams. Please take the time to learn a bit about them, to learn what was stolen from this world.