Civil Rights LBJ School Politics and Governance

A Look at “The Guy with the Knife”: Is the Texas Criminal Justice System too Easily Manipulated?

Photo: Jon Buice behind prison glass

The LBJ School of Public Affairs’ Center for Health and Social Policy (CHASP) recently collaborated with the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law at the UT Law School and the LBJ School’s Harvey Milk Society to present a screening of the film “The Guy with the Knife.” The screening was followed by a panel discussion where we were fortunate to have a star-studded lineup including the film’s director, Alison Armstrong, LBJ School Senior Lecturer and criminal justice policy expert Michele Deitch, and a number of the individuals featured in the film.

“The Guy with the Knife” tells the story of Jon Buice, a man serving a 45-year sentence for his role in the 1991 murder of Paul Broussard. For those unfamiliar, it is a “true crime” story that reached national prominence as a symbol of hate crimes on the basis of sexual preference. The story itself is replete with dramatic elements. Broussard was a gay man killed in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, a predominantly gay district that had a known history of “gay-bashing” attacks with limited police or EMS intervention. The suspects, known as the “Woodlands 10”, were all teenagers from the suburbs. But it took a national media campaign led by gay rights activists to spur police and prosecutorial action in the case, and ultimately the Woodlands 10 were handed their sentences amid well-organized outcry from the public.

Since then, the narrative of Broussard’s murder as a hate crime has largely changed. Ray Hill, the lead activist who organized rallies and demonstrations to push for heavy prosecution of the Woodlands 10, eventually admitted to fabricating the story of it being a hate crime in order to garner media attention. And in a telling turn of events, Hill eventually began advocating to get Buice paroled. The story rivals compelling fiction in its drama and intrigue, as heartbreaking as it is riveting.

While there are many conversations to be had about the film and the underlying facts, what struck me the most was the manipulability of Texas’ criminal justice system in all of its phases. The film features a host of examples of individuals and groups influencing this system. At various times it credits individuals, organized advocacy efforts, and media campaigns with spurring:

  1. the Houston Police Department to conduct a serious investigation into Broussard’s death, which otherwise would likely have gone unsolved;
  2. the Houston District Attorney’s refusal to accept fewer than a 45-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea from Buice;
  3. the Parole Board’s rescinding of Buice’s release order after he was originally granted parole in 2011; and
  4. the continued denial of Buice’s parole each year from 2012-2014

The film presents compelling evidence of media and/or activist involvement in each of these decisions. Taken as a group, these four instances show that the criminal justice system in Texas is not always operated by impartial arbiters, but rather can be subject to the same vagaries and attitude shifts as any other part of the American political process.

This is not to say that the influence of public opinion on the criminal justice system is always bad. Rather, this is to say that refusing to acknowledge the role of political influence in the criminal justice system is a problem. The distinction is more than semantic. For example, a large-scale activism and media campaign was necessary to force the Houston Police Department to fully investigate Broussard’s death. This was an important moment in the history of relations between Houston Police and the GLBT community, and has led to lasting improvements. To the extent that such campaigns are necessary to spur the police to investigate crimes committed against underrepresented communities, political pressure can be good.

However, pretending that Buice’s sentence was based solely on the merits of the case ignores the political climate in which the sentence was given. Buice was a 17-year-old kid who in many states across the country would have been eligible to be tried in the juvenile justice system.  He was not sentenced to 45 years in prison because of the crime he committed. Rather, he was sentenced to 45 years in prison because of public outcry at the time of his case, in large part due to their belief in a fabricated motive that the originator has since recanted.  The District Attorney and judge in this case took their cues from the public, not from an impartial evaluation of the facts or the interest of justice. This is evidenced by the fact that half of the Woodlands 10 were sentenced to probation even though their involvement with the murder was similar.

We must either do more to insulate the key decision-makers in the criminal justice system from political pressures or put more effort into recognizing the implications of political influence on our justice system. This is true not only of judges and district attorneys, but also of the parole board – the institution designed to evaluate the severity of the offense and the subject’s risk to society. Ultimately, the parole board is responsible for determining who should be released to supervision before completing their full sentence.  It is the supposed last bastion of technocratic authority in the criminal justice system.

On Friday, 11/13, the Parole Board granted Buice parole for the second time. With their decision comes an opportunity for Buice to submit his parole plan and be released. It also provides one more opportunity for advocates to attempt to change the Parole Board’s decision. A second reversal would confirm that our criminal justice system values the opinions of the politically influential more than those of its own experts.

Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht recently said in an interview with the Texas Tribune that the public demands of its justice system two incompatible goals – that they be independent and that they be accountable to the people. In Texas, we have fallen too far on the latter end of the spectrum. If the purpose of the criminal justice system is to balance the rights and needs of victims, defendants and society as a whole, we need to make sure that the arbiters of that system are judging by the merits of the case and not the size of the megaphone shouting them.

Edited by: Mariam Ahmed

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