Perry Report Card: Criminal Justice

Yesterday, when we unveiled the cover of our July issue featuring Rick Perry, we also told you about "The Perry Report Card," an upcoming magazine feature where, as the title suggests, we graded the tenure of the governor on eight areas of public policy. We invited you to weigh in with your own grades for Perry on the subject of transparency and ethics. Under consideration today is his work on criminal justice. 

Perry is (in)famously tough on crime. He fully endorses the use of the ultimate punishment (when warranted), and to that end has signed off on more executions than any other governor in modern history. And his record on that is unlikely to be exceeded, because the number of death sentences issued in Texas has dropped sharply since 2005--when he signed a law giving juries the option of sentencing murderers to life without parole. And that's just one of the ways in which his record is more nuanced than one might think. At the end of this past legislative session, he signed the Michael Morton Act (which is designed to prevent wrongful criminal convictions) into law, and earlier this year, he also came out in favor of letting states choose if marijuana should be decriminalized in their communities. 

Oklahoma's Botched Execution

A majority of Americans favor the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. So too do a majority of Texans. Of note, though, is that this is an issue where Texans are markedly more conservative than Americans as a group, according to the polls, at least: as of 2013, according to the UT/Texas Tribune, 74% of Texans strongly or somewhat support capital punishment. By contrast, according to Gallup, 60% of Americans are in favor of it.

The disjunct may be partly due to the way the respective pollsters phrased their question--Gallup asked a binary question, whereas the UT/TT framework allows for a couple of shades of gray. Given that Texas famously leads the nation in executions, though, a more plausible explanation is that capital punishment is normalized in this state in a way that it may not be in others.

The Death Penalty Has a Face: A DA’s Personal Story

I remember feeling a little nervous when the heavy door leading to Death Row clanged shut behind me. I didn’t really know what I would see. Having never walked the concrete corridors of a Texas prison, or any other for that matter, I didn't know at the time that it was very much the same as any other cell block. Inmates stepped aside as we passed, eyes down, in their place behind a yellow line painted along the edge of the floor.

A Mighty Collaboration

Today we're publishing the fruit of our third collaboration to date with our pals at the Texas Tribune, the non-profit news organization that was founded in 2009 by our former editor, Evan Smith. In its few short years of existence, the Trib has emerged as one of the best outlets for politics and public policy reporting in the state, and one of the most interesting (and successful) non-profit news sites in the country. Amid the often depressing conversation about the future of the news media business, the Trib remains a bright spot, an example of how new business models can support innovative and important journalism that has real civic value.

We've watched with pride and excitement these past three and a half years as the Trib has established itself. And we've looked continuously for ways to work together to advance our mutual causes. The prime example of this, to date, has been our weekly collaborations on the Texas Report, a two-page section of state coverage that runs in the Texas edition of the New York Times on Fridays and Sundays. The Trib runs their politics and public policy reporting, and since 2011, Texas Monthly has provided the cultural coverage for this section (and by culture, we mean The Culture, as in stories about not just music, books, and movies but also Texas history, food, crime, art, celebrities, sports, and more). It's been a great match for all three media organizations.

But we haven't stopped there. Back in 2010 we published a story co-written by the Trib's energy and environment reporter, Kate Galbraith, on the history of the Texas wind power industry (a story that has now grown into an excellent forthcoming book to be published in April by the University of Texas Press). Last summer we ran another feature by Kate, about how the looming water shortages in Texas are being tackled by large industry. And shortly after that, we worked together to send Reeve Hamilton, the Trib's higher ed correspondent, to Qatar to report on the Texas A&M campus there. 

The Trib has made a business of collaborating. Making their content freely available to newspapers around the state is part of their model. So we're thrilled to find even more extensive ways of working together. As Evan wrote in a post on their site today:

Trouble in Mind

Wanda Banks remembers Andre Thomas when he was a bright, curious kid in her Sunday school class at Harmony Baptist Church, a little boy so eager to speak about the Bible stories he had memorized that he would shoot his hand into the air before she could even finish her question. Harmony Baptist, which sits at the edge of a predominantly black neighborhood on Sherman’s east side, served as a second home to Andre during his chaotic childhood. Banks used to drive him and his four brothers home on the church bus after Sunday school, and during the winter months, she always made a point to drop them off last so they could stay warm a little longer. Despite the charity that their mother received from the church, their small, unkempt home often lacked heat, electricity, and running water. Still, Andre never complained. “He was a very respectful kid, just a sweet kid,” Banks told me. “He could have been so brilliant with the right set of circumstances.”

From a young age, Andre’s appetite for knowledge about the world around him was insatiable. “He wanted to know why the grass was green and why the sky was blue,” one of his brothers, Danny Ross, told me. “He wanted answers for everything.” He was a tinkerer too, taking things apart to figure out how they worked, once disassembling a beat-up brown Fiat that his father, Danny Thomas, had bought for $300. “He tore it all to pieces and then put it back together,” recalled Thomas, shaking his head at the memory. Thomas was an ephemeral presence in his son’s life, providing little in the way of guidance. But Andre still managed to excel in school early on, and he made ambitious plans, sketching intricate drawings of the futuristic cars that he planned to design one day. 

As he neared adolescence, though, something seemed to go awry. Around the time he turned ten years old, in 1993, he started telling classmates about the voices in his head. He said he could hear angels and demons arguing with one another. Sometimes he would shout back at the demons, his eyes widening and his body breaking out in a sweat. Trying to drown out the voices, he started drinking and later smoking marijuana. He was still in elementary school when he slit his wrists in what would be the first of many failed suicide attempts. Soon his church attendance dropped off, and Banks noticed that when he did stop by Harmony Baptist, he seemed lost in his own world. The troubles continued to worsen. When he was thirteen, he tried to kill himself again, sawing on his wrists with a butcher knife. Two years later, he briefly landed in a juvenile detention center after a string of arrests, including for car theft. He was put on suicide watch after he threatened to kill himself but was released two days later, without any access to psychological counseling. Though he was just fifteen years old, he had been manifesting signs of severe mental illness for at least five years.

Still, there were times when the voices subsided and Andre was just a normal teenager. He walked or rode his bike around town, going to and from his girlfriend’s house and the Burger King where he worked after school, seeming little different from his peers. He dropped out of the ninth grade when his girlfriend, a petite blonde named Laura Boren, became pregnant, and he began working several jobs to support them, including washing dishes at Red Lobster. When Andre Jr. was born, he was a proud father, nicknaming the baby boy Juicy. He and Laura exchanged wedding vows at Harmony Baptist on March 17, 2001—Andre’s eighteenth birthday. Andre no doubt hoped that he would get better and that the hallucinations and suicidal thoughts would eventually stop. But the teenagers, whose relationship was a stormy one, separated only four months later, and in the wake of their breakup, Andre’s behavior became increasingly erratic. The voices in his head screamed at him, and he suffered from psychotic delusions. He obsessed over Revelation and sometimes duct-taped his mouth shut for days at a time. Laura moved in with another man, Bryant Hughes, with whom she had a daughter, Leyha, in 2003, but Andre fixated on reconciling with her.

By 2004, Andre was 21 years old, deeply mentally ill, and receiving no treatment. On the bright, clear morning of March 27, he charged up the stairs to the third-floor apartment where Laura lived and kicked in the door. Her boyfriend had already left for work. Andre was holding three knives, one for each of his intended victims. He first encountered Laura, who ran toward him, screaming “No!” Andre plunged a knife into her chest. He then reached in and pulled out what he believed was her heart (he had, in fact, extracted part of her lung). Next, he headed for the children’s room, where Andre Jr. and 1-year-old Leyha were sleeping. Andre held down his 4-year-old son and stabbed him before moving on to Leyha. He carved out each of the children’s hearts. Finally, Andre jammed a knife into his own chest three times and lay down beside Laura on the living room floor, expecting to die. Confounded when he didn’t, he slipped the organs he had removed into his pocket and walked more than five miles home. A few hours later, he went to the Sherman Police Department, where he confessed to the murders and asked if he would be forgiven. “I thought it was what God wanted me to do,” he later told investigators. 


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