On January 4, 1989, paramedics in Emory, Texas, were summoned to the rural Rains County home of Debbie Tucker Loveless and her common-law husband, John Harvey Miller
. They found Loveless’s four-year-old daughter, April, wrapped in a blanket on the kitchen floor.
The child had numerous wounds, the most severe on her right leg. Loveless, 31, and Miller, 42, said April had been attacked by wild dogs.
The girl was airlifted to a hospital in Tyler, Texas, but died during surgery to graft a new femoral artery, which had been severed.
When police began investing the couple’s claim about wild dogs, they found a few pieces of clothing and small amounts of blood near the family’s barn, but little else.
On January 5, 1989, the Smith County Medical Examiner conducted an autopsy and concluded the injuries were caused by a sharp knife and a curling iron—not wild dogs.
A search warrant was executed at the couple’s home two days later and police confiscated a curling iron found in a clothes hamper and a hunting knife that Miller had received as a Christmas gift.
On January 17, 1989, Loveless and Miller were arrested on a charge of felony injury to a child. The charge was soon elevated to murder.
The couple went on trial on October 31, 1989 with the prosecution arguing that Miller had beaten and cut the child to death.
The most significant testimony came from the medical examiner, who said that the edges of the wound were cleanly cut—as if by a knife—and did not resemble the jagged edges that would be expected in an attack by a dog.
The defense did not raise the dog attack theory and only called two witnesses—Mr. Miller’s ex-wife from Kentucky and a state crime lab analyst who said no blood was found on the knife.
The couple was convicted on November 5, 1989 and both were sentenced to life in prison.
In December 1990, the 6th District Court of Appeals in Texarkana rejected their appeal.
In 1992, lawyers for the couple obtained the emergency room and autopsy photos, which had not been turned over the defense prior to the trial.
In one photo, a paw print was visible on April’s back. Several medical experts viewed the material and all concluded April was the victim of a dog attack. The wound on the thigh that was visible at the autopsy was, in fact, caused by a scalpel during the attempt to save the girl’s life. Physicians had cut away ragged skin during surgery, the experts said. Moreover, DNA tests on April's clothing revealed the presence of canine saliva.
A state petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed and on April 3, 1993, following a four-day hearing, Loveless and Miller were granted a new trial because of the prosecution’s failure to turn over the medical records, and because of ineffective representation by their defense attorneys.
Loveless and Miller were released from prison on December 23, 1993 after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court decision to vacate the conviction.
On May 2, 1994, the charges were dismissed. Loveless and Miller filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Rains County prosecutors Alwin Smith and Frank Long and Rains County Sheriff Richard Wilson in 1995. The lawsuit was settled out of court in 2001.
– Maurice Possley