AUSTIN, Texas -- Four days after Christmas 1991, 28-year-old Colleen Reed took her new Mazda Miata to a car wash near downtown Austin. She was never seen or heard from again. The man convicted and sentenced to death for her murder is Kenneth Allen McDuff, one of the most notorious killers in Texas history. His early release from prison in 1990 led to massive changes in the state's parole system, and his appeal in the Reed case is likely to break new legal ground as well. With the exception of David Ruiz, whose 20-year lawsuit led to extensive prison reforms, McDuff may end up forcing more changes in Texas' criminal justice system than any inmate before him. Although McDuff is facing the death penalty for a conviction in a separate case -- the March 1, 1992, abduction and murder of Waco store clerk Melissa Northrup -- prosecutors in Travis County and Reed's relatives desperately wanted a conviction for Reed's slaying as well. 'The No. 1 priority is to make sure he never gets out of prison, except in a casket,' said Reed's sister, Lori Bible. 'That was the idea. If the conviction in the Northrup case is overturned, we want to make damn sure he will never get out.' But legal experts and lawyers on both sides of the case agree that for the conviction in Reed's slaying to be upheld, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is going to have to make new law. The major problems are that Reed's body was never found, and the main witness against McDuff -- an accomplice in the crime -- did not actually see him kill her.
Prior to 1974, McDuff would not even have gone to trial under the fact situation in Reed's case, according to Michael Sharlot, a criminal law expert and dean of the University of Texas School of Law. The law required the production and identification of a murder victim's body. Although the law was changed in 1974 to no longer require a body, prosecutors still have problems. There is very little case law for judges to rely on and the testimony of Alva Hank Worley -- McDuff's accomplice and the state's principal witness -- cannot be corroborated. According to Worley, he and McDuff snatched Reed while she was washing her car and took turns raping her while driving on Interstate 35 north of Austin to a county road near Belton in Central Texas. Worley testified that McDuff knocked Reed unconscious with a single blow to the head, put her body in the trunk of the car and then drove Worley home. He said McDuff then told him he was going to 'use her up.' Although Reed's body was never found, prosecutors and family members say there is no doubt she is dead. 'I don't think anybody believes she is still alive,' Bible said. 'There's no way. I would love to believe it. I did for a long time. But there is too much evidence.' Sharlot and Assistant District Attorney Philip Nelson, who is prosecuting McDuff, say there is only one other Texas murder case since 1974 in which a body was not produced. But in that case, there was coroborating evidence and an independent witness who testified that the defendant confessed. So as far as case law is concerned, the Court of Criminal Appeals is in unknown territory. 'In this one, there is just zero,' Nelson said. 'There's not only no finding of the body. The girl disappeared under extraordinarily crazy circumstances. The accomplice witness could not go to the point where he saw her dead.' Sharlot said the case puts members of the state's highest criminal appeals court in a tough spot. 'How would you like to be on the Court of Criminal Appeals and have to throw out this case?' he said. 'It is tough. After a quick review of the law, it looks to me like it would be very hard to uphold the conviction. They would have to make new law (to uphold the verdict).' Bible said she was 'very concerned' that McDuff's conviction will be thrown out. 'I don't want to go through it again. I don't want another trial,' she said. 'I kind of feel some empathy for the judges. They've got some tough decisions to make.' Even one of the judges who heard oral arguments in McDuff's appeal Sept. 13 said from the bench that the case will likely break new legal ground, whether the conviction is upheld or overturned. 'We're going to have to write new law here one way or the other,' he said. If McDuff does escape the death penalty for Reed's murder, it would not be the first time he turned the criminal justice system on its ear. He was first convicted in the late 1960s of murdering three Fort Worth teenagers, but his death sentence was commuted to life in prison when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972. To the horror of law enforcement officials who knew him, McDuff was paroled in October 1989 after serving more than 20 years in prison. Because of prison overcrowding, there was tremendous pressure on the parole board to turn people loose to make room for new convicts. McDuff was sent back to prison a year later for making terroristic threats -- a violation of his parole -- but was released again in December 1990. Soon thereafter, central Texas authorities say, young women began to disappear. After Worley's confession, McDuff was arrested in May 1992 in Kansas City, Mo., where he was working on a garbage truck. He had been recognized by a viewer watching an episode of 'America's Most Wanted.' Because of McDuff's 1990 release, the Legislature overhauled state parole policies, requiring the full board -- not just a three-member panel -- to sign off before a capital killer can be released. It is now likely that McDuff -- described by one prosecutor as 'everybody's nightmare' -- will force changes in criminal law as well.