Twenty-four years ago, my 16-year-old son made a terrible mistake. Since then, he has been serving a life sentence in Texas prison for capital murder.
My son, Jason, was raised in a military family. I was a First Sergeant in the U.S. Army and for most of my life, and the army and duty to my country came first. My family suffered through my five combat deployments, and at times I was assigned to a special operations unit, leaving me unable to tell my family where I was or communicate with them regularly. During this time, Jason’s mental health started to deteriorate. It finally got so bad that the Army transferred me back to be with my children, and I promised them that I was home to stay.
However, Saddam Hussein had different plans and, just eight weeks later, I had to leave once again. Tired of the many deployments and tired of being a mom, my wife left me and our two children, and I was forced to send my sons to live with my dad. I later found out that, during this time, my dad abused my children. Jason was never the same after he came back from living with my father. He was sad and depressed and, after he tried to kill himself, we finally got him into counseling.
As terrible as leaving my boys on deployment had been up to that point, the final time I left is the one I regret the most. I had remarried, and on this deployment, I had to leave Jason with his new stepmother. Shortly after I left, they quarreled, and she kicked him out. The day of the crime, Jason called her and begged her to pick him up from school and let him move back home, but she said no. Jason and the boy he was staying with went to a pawn shop where, tragically, that boy stabbed and killed the clerk.
Under certain circumstances in Texas, a person can be held criminally responsible for the actions of another person under the “law of parties.” Because of this law, Jason was convicted of capital murder and given a mandatory life sentence. The jury never heard any evidence of his mental health issues or childhood abuse, and they were not given an opportunity to consider a shorter sentence because Jason wasn’t the one who killed the clerk.
The jury also did not have the benefit of modern evidence about juvenile development and brain science. Recently, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling emphasized that attributes of youth diminish the justification for imposing the harshest sentences on children, even when they commit terrible crimes. Yet, under Texas law, Jason must wait 40 years before he is eligible for his first parole hearing. In Texas, less than 5 percent of juveniles convicted of capital murder have ever been paroled. Because “life” in Texas is the factual equivalent of “life without parole,” there is a good chance that Jason will die in prison unless something changes.
Texas Speaker Pro Tem Joe Moody, D-El Paso, and Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, have introduced legislation, House Bill 256 and Senate Bill 155, that would give Jason and others who were also sentenced for crimes they committed as kids the right to be considered for earlier parole. This legislation isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it does allow the parole board to review cases like Jason’s to determine whether or not the person before them is sufficiently rehabilitated and merits a second chance.
Neither Jason nor I will ever be able to take back that horrible day or make it up to the victim’s family. But 24 years later, Jason simply is no longer the dumb, scared, foolish 16-year-old who made that terrible mistake. I pray that Texas lawmakers will listen to Jason’s story, pass this legislation and give him a second look.