Office of the Attorney General News Release Archive


Tuesday, March 6, 2001

MEDIA ADVISORY

Dennis Thurl Dowthitt Scheduled To Be Executed

AUSTIN - Texas Attorney General John Cornyn offers the following information on Dennis Thurl Dowthitt who is scheduled to be executed after 6 p.m. on Wednesday, March 7th.

On October 7, 1992, Dennis Thurl Dowthitt was convicted of murdering 16-year old Gracie Purnhagen in Conroe, Texas, during the course of an aggravated sexual assault. A summary of the evidence presented at trial follows.

FACTS OF THE CRIME

Gracie and Tiffany Purnhagen, ages 16 and nine, respectively, were last seen by their mother on June 13, 1990. The girls had been given money to walk the short distance to a movie theater and go out to eat. Later in the evening, the girls were seen in the company of Dowthitt and his son, Delton, age 16. Another witness recounted seeing Gracie and Tiffany leaving a bowling alley and Gracie indicating that she was being picked up by her boyfriend, Delton.

Delton later testified concerning the events that occurred thereafter. Delton had arranged to have Dowthitt drive him to the bowling alley to pick up the girls and take them home. They picked up the girls, and Dowthitt suggested that they stop and drink some beer; he and Dowthitt had picked up a couple of six packs earlier. Gracie agreed, so Dowthitt drove the group to an isolated area and parked.

Gracie and Delton went behind Dowthitt's pickup truck and began kissing, while Dowthitt and Tiffany were at the front. Tiffany then came to the back of the truck looking frightened, said that Dowthitt was trying to scare her, and whispered to her sister. There was some indication that Dowthitt had tried to sexually assault Tiffany. Dowthitt, who was coming to the back of the truck with a knife, said that he had made a mistake and that, "We've got to get rid of them." Delton said "no," but Dowthitt said that it was too late, pushed Gracie to the ground, and cut her throat. Dowthitt ordered Delton twice to "do it." Obeying, Delton strangled Tiffany until she fell to the ground and then got a rope and tied it around her neck. Meanwhile, Dowthitt got Delton's beer bottle off the back of the truck and proceeded to sexually assault Gracie with it. Dowthitt told Delton to join in sexually assaulting Gracie, but he refused. Dowthitt cut Gracie's throat again and gave Delton the knife, telling him to cut Tiffany's throat, but Delton pocketed the knife, carried Tiffany into the woods and then helped Dowthitt carry Gracie. Dowthitt threw the bottle in the back of the truck.

Later that evening, two witnesses together saw Dowthitt at his auto shop in Humble and noticed that his shirt had blood on it.

The next day, according to the testimony of Dowthitt's daughter, Darla, before the victim's bodies were discovered, Dowthitt telephoned and repeatedly asked her if she would forgive him for "what he's done." Darla testified that the victims had been good friends of hers.

On June 16, 1990, Dowthitt, Delton and other family members left for Louisiana under the guise of visiting Dowthitt's aunt. That evening, the bodies of Gracie and Tiffany were discovered in a wooded area in south Montgomery County. A medical examiner later testified that Tiffany was killed by ligature strangulation, and Gracie was killed by trauma to the neck involving bleeding. Gracie's body showed evidence of sexual assault consistent with the size of a beer bottle and that she had been conscious when the assault occurred.

Dowthitt's aunt later testified that Dowthitt talked to her privately on June 17, 1990, that he was upset and almost crying, and that he told her, "I did it, and I made Delton do it." However, he would not explain what he meant.

When Delton was arrested, he initially took the blame for both murders and sought to conceal Dowthitt's involvement. He later explained that Dowthitt had threatened him, as well as his mother and sisters, and that he had believed that, as a juvenile, his punishment would be less severe.

Delton pled guilty to the murder of Tiffany Purnhagen and agreed to testify in exchange for a 45-year sentence and the dismissal of the charge of the capital murder of Gracie. Delton's lawyer testified that Delton had told him from the beginning, even before the plea agreement, that Dowthitt was involved.

After giving a series of inconsistent statements to police, in which he went from denying to admitting being present at the murder scene, Dowthitt was arrested for the murder of Gracie Purnhagen.

PROCEDURAL TIME-LINE

October 16, 1991 - Dowthitt was indicted in the 221st District Court of Montgomery County, Texas, for the capital offense of murdering more than one person during the same criminal transaction and, in a second count, for murder in the course of committing aggravated sexual assault.

October 7, 1992 - After being tried before a jury upon a plea of not guilty, the state abandoned the first count of the indictment, and the jury found him guilty of the second count.

October 9, 1992 - Following a separate punishment hearing, the court assessed Dowthitt's punishment at death.

June 26, 1996 - The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed his conviction and sentence in a published opinion.

October 16, 1996 - The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied rehearing, and Dowthitt did not petition the United States Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari from that decision.

August 19, 1997 - Dowthitt filed an application for a state writ of habeas corpus, as well as a later supplemental application.

September 16, 1998 - After the state trial court entered detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law recommending that relief be denied, both applications were denied by the Court of Criminal Appeals in an unpublished order.

April 19, 1999 - Dowthitt filed a petition for writ of certiorari from that decision which was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court.

December 30, 1998 - Dowthitt filed a petition for habeas corpus relief in federal district court after obtaining appointment of counsel and a stay of execution.

January 27, 2000 - After conducting an evidentiary hearing on Dowthitt's claim of actual innocence in which live testimony was heard from Delton, Federal Judge Nancy Atlas found that Delton testified "clearly, unequivocally, and credibly" and issued an 89-page opinion rejecting Dowthitt's claims and denying habeas relief.

October 16, 2000 - The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied permission to appeal in a published opinion.

November 10, 2000 - The Fifth Circuit court denied rehearing.

February 8, 2001 - Dowthitt filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court.

March 6, 2001 - The U. S. Supreme Court denied certiorari review.

PRIOR HISTORY

During the punishment phase of Dowthitt's trial, two of his daughters, Donna and Darla, testified regarding Dowthitt's behavior with them. Donna testified that when she was four or five years old, Dowthitt had touched her inappropriately and that when she was 15, Dowthitt touched her again and asked if she remembered what had happened when she was a little girl. When this later event occurred, Donna left immediately and did not continue living with Dowthitt.

Dowthitt's 18-year old daughter, Darla, testified that she went camping with him on the Sunday before the murders. When they were alone, Dowthitt proceeded to threaten her with a knife and sexually assault her. She added that Dowthitt had been raping her since she was 11 and that he had also previously used a bottle and a broomstick on her. Dowthitt had also offered to buy her a car if she would find him a young girlfriend.

MISCELLANEOUS

For additional information and statistics, please log on to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website, www.tdcj.state.tx.us.

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Contact: Mark Heckmann, Tom Kelley or Jane Dees Shepperd at (512) 463-2050.
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