Crime

Murderer of Kennewick man dies on death row

Thirty-five years after Kennewick college student Mike McMahan was shot in a Texas river bottom, his murderer reportedly has died in jail as he awaited hearings for a retrial.

Janna McMahan, Mike's sister in West Richland, was notified Friday by a prosecuting attorney that Ronald Chambers, 55, died Thursday.

He had spent more than half of his life on death row for the 1975 abduction and shooting of the 22-year-old Texas Tech University student and his date, Deia Sutton.

"I have just gone through every emotion today," Janna said.

Chambers death does not bring her brother back, but it's a huge relief that there will not be another trial, she said.

Janna and her parents sat through three trials for Chambers as one death sentence conviction, then another, was overturned. Janna was set to fly to Texas in early 2007 to witness Chambers' execution when Justice Antonin Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court granted a reprieve on the third conviction.

"It takes the life out of you going through this all again," Bennie McMahan, Mike's mother, said then. She and Mike's father, Mabry, still lived in the Kennewick house where Mike grew up in 2007, but Mabry died later that year and Bennie died in 2009.

"I wish my parents had lived to see it," Janna said. She wanted them to know that Chambers would not get another trial.

She feared that on the fourth trial -- which was for just the penalty -- too much time had passed for Chambers to again get a death sentence.

The McMahan family had been concerned that Texas did not have a life-without-parole penalty when Mike was killed, and that if Chambers was not again sentenced to death, he would be eligible for parole.

Mike was Janna's only sibling. He graduated in 1971 from Kennewick High, where he played tennis. He was a good math student and dreamed of attending Texas Tech, just like his dad, a Westinghouse-Hanford engineer.

In 1975, Mike was a senior engineering student at the university in Lubbock.

That April, he visited Dallas to attend a student engineering conference. As he was leaving a nightclub about 12:45 a.m. with Sutton, they were approached by two men armed with a handgun and a shotgun, the Herald reported at the time.

Mike and his friend were forced into Mike's Camaro and driven to the Trinity River. The two men took the $25 in their wallets and told them to walk through the mud toward the river. As they faced the river, two shots were fired and both fell to the ground, the Herald reported.

When the two men heard Mike call out to ask his friend if she was all right, Chambers came back to the river's edge and beat Mike with the butt of the shotgun until he died. The second man beat Sutton and held her under water until she passed out.

But Sutton survived to crawl several blocks for help and later testify against Chambers. At his initial trial, the jury took less than 30 minutes to reach a decision.

But the verdict was overturned on appeal after questions were raised about whether a psychiatrist who interviewed Chambers had made clear that anything he said could be used as evidence.

A second trial was held in 1985. But the guilty verdict was overturned because there was not a black person on the jury and Chambers was black.

The third trial was in 1992, but on appeal Chambers' attorney had argued that a jury instruction did not specify that factors such as character evidence and Chambers' upbringing in government projects could be considered in choosing the sentence.

A federal appeals court decision reversed Chambers' death sentence and the Supreme Court declined to review the decision in 2008. The new sentencing trial was set for June.

No information was available Friday evening on how Chambers died. He remained listed on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website as having been on death row longer than any other prisoner in the state.

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