Welcome to Texas justice: You might beat the rap, but you won’t beat the ride.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Epilogue to “The Guy With the Knife”: Jon Buice was granted parole. Again.

In a timely epilogue to the screening last week of “The Guy With the Knife” at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, news comes today that the subject of the film, Jon Buice, was just granted parole after 24 years in prison. Buice was convicted of murder in the high-profile case involving banker Paul Broussard in Houston. The 1991 crime involved an apparent gay-bashing by a group of 10 youth from The Woodlands, and mobilized the Houston gay community to advocate for equal rights and for investigation and prosecution of this crime.

While on the surface, the case against the 17-year old Buice seemed cut-and-dry, and the outrage about the gay-bashing seemed fully justified, a closer analysis of the case revealed that the realities of the crime and its aftermath were far murkier. In fact, some prominent members of Houston’s LGBT community, including Ray Hill (the producer of The Prison Show and the original proponent of the “gay bashing” theory of the case) and Maria Gonzalez (the head of Houston’s LGBT Caucus and a University of Houston professor) came to be among Buice’s biggest supporters. Hill later admitted that he fabricated the notion that this was a hate crime in order to put pressure on law enforcement officials to solve the case. And Gonzalez went from fighting to keep Buice locked up to becoming a staunch advocate for his release.

Two separate deeper dives into the case—one by journalism prof Michael Berryhill and the other by independent filmmaker Alison Armstrong, who spent eight years making her film–raised serious concerns about a number of previously unexplored issues. Buice’s guilt is not in question, but both investigations raise serious doubts that there was any underlying intention to target a gay person and that there was any intent to commit murder; rather, it seems much more likely that it was a fight by teens, intoxicated by drugs and alcohol, that got out of hand. Notably, Buice’s case was resolved with a plea bargain for a 45-year sentence, so many facts never had the opportunity to come out at a trial.

Two of the most damning indicators that this was a gay-bashing withered under closer inspection. For example, the media originally touted the fact that the perpetrators used a wooden board studded with nails to beat the victim, but no such item was ever found in the evidence locker and there was no proof or testimony such a weapon ever existed. Similarly, the victim was supposedly “gutted like a deer” with a huge knife, but the only weapon involved turned out to be a knife with a two-inch blade that was used to stab Broussard. The victim’s especially gory “injury” was in fact the result of his autopsy. Another revelation in the film had to do with the fact that the victim, Paul Broussard, was awake and conversant when EMS arrived on the scene, and that his transportation to the hospital and treatment by a doctor were severely delayed due to fears about possible exposure to AIDS, at a time when that disease had the city in a panic.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the case, though, had to do with a development in 2011 when Buice was originally granted parole after numerous set-offs. By all accounts, Buice was deeply repentant, and had been a model prisoner, earning several college degrees and becoming a peer educator at the Wynne Farm. But shortly after the Parole Board announced its parole decision, in the days before Buice was actually released but after there was political pushback to its decision, Buice was accused of having an “inappropriate relationship” with a female prison chaplain.

No evidence was ever produced showing that such an inappropriate relationship existed. And indeed, the only inappropriate behavior was on TDCJ’s part. In an extraordinarily brazen move that would likely have a chilling effect on the chaplaincy program in TDCJ were it better known, TDCJ installed video surveillance equipment in Chaplain Linda Hill’s office, capturing footage of all her private communications with inmates and staff alike during a two-week period.

Despite the fact that the video showed perfectly ordinary encounters between Buice and the chaplain, Buice’s parole decision was rescinded and he was placed in disciplinary segregation for some period of time. And officials at the agency fired Chaplain Linda Hill and slandered her reputation, making her collateral consequence in this campaign to ensure that Buice stayed behind bars. Hill’s personal nightmare has only worsened in the years since her unfair dismissal. Berryhill’s account fills out many more details of this sordid story.

While it is tempting to focus any discussion of the case on these irregularities and injustices, in many ways those case-specific details detract from the larger issues and lessons presented here. Maybe we need to look at this case as a story of what it means for a perpetrator of a violent crime to become rehabilitated, or for a community to forgive a person who has hurt them. Perhaps we ought to ask hard questions about when someone has been punished enough, and what further purpose it could serve to keep someone locked up beyond the time that anyone could reasonably think he is a danger to society. And finally, the case should cause us to ask how the justice system can be so easily manipulated, whether at the investigation, prosecution, or parole stage.

One hopes that this latest parole decision–by a parole panel with full information–is the final chapter in Buice’s case, and that there will be no further twists and turns. And one also hopes that there can be some healing for everyone involved in and hurt by this tragic case: for Paul Broussard’s family; for the gay community in Houston and beyond; for Jon Buice, his family, and supporters; and for Linda Hill, whose own story has scarcely begun to be told.

MORE: Kuff disagrees Buice has served enough time, for reasons he explained here in 2013.