Mimesis Law
8 December 2019

Jon Buice: How Long Is Long Enough?

Nov. 18, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — It seemed like a horrible hate crime:

Buice and the others, from the Houston suburb of The Woodlands, drove into the city on July 4, 1991, looking for homosexuals to harass, according to authorities. They spotted Broussard, 27, and two friends walking not far from a gay nightspot. The 10 got into a fight with the three.

Broussard’s friends escaped. Buice, then 17, stabbed the man to death.

Buice pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 45 years in prison. Now 41 years old, Buice has served nearly 24 years of his sentence. Four of the others arrested in the death were also sent to prison; the other five received probation.

It’s not hard to hate Jon Buice. He stabbed a man, after all, and apparently for no reason other than the fact he was prejudiced against a group of people which, he assumed, included that man. Buice did it as part of a big group, too, with a bunch of like-minded bigots. There’s strength in numbers, but when you’ve got three and the bad guys have ten, the odds are against you.

It was a terrifying, random crime. Buice deserved prison as much as anyone I can imagine. He’s done some prison, though. How much is enough for the crime?

The victim’s mother, Nancy Rodriguez, says Buice should serve at least 27 years, representing her son’s age when he was killed.

Andy Kahan, director of the Crime Victims Assistance Office in Houston, said Rodriguez, who lives outside of Texas, is “stunned” by the parole board’s decision.

“The paroling of a convicted killer who has served essentially 51 percent of a sentence will indeed have a chilling effect for all homicide survivors,” Kahan said. “Is this the message the parole board wants to convey to the law-abiding citizens of our state?”

The first problem is how arbitrary the victim’s mother’s opinion about the sentence is. I can understand the pull of arguing that the life span of the victim should have some bearing on the sentence of the defendant. It’s an emotional, he-shouldn’t-have-what-his-victim-didn’t reaction that tugs at the heart strings. That’s about all it has going for it, though.

How does the fact he stole the life of someone who was twenty-seven mean that he owes twenty-seven years himself? Had Buice murdered an old gay man on his death bed, would he have owed seventy, eighty or ninety years? Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to owe the difference between his victim’s life expectancy and age at death than just the victim’s age at death? How would you calculate that?

Let’s say you can see the appeal of an argument that he took twenty-seven years, so that’s what he owes. Do you want to encourage people to victimize the youngest people they can find? If you’re the sort who thinks that punishments affect criminals’ decisions about crime, do you really want to create a sentencing scheme where killing an infant gives you a tremendous discount because you only took a few months?

The “stunned” crime victims’ assistance office director lamenting release after 51 percent of the sentence is the perfect example of a sort of silliness that’s pretty much par for the course where big sentencing numbers are not just accepted, but encouraged. Does he not realize that 51 percent of the sentence is almost one and a half times the length of the offender’s life prior to the offense?

Buice was a teenager when he did it. He wasn’t old enough to vote, sign a contract or serve in the military. He’d put in seventeen years trying to become an adult. Before he reached that marker, he made a life-changing stupid decision. How ineffective of a message is it that you might just spend your entire existence plus half in prison for a crime?

On top of that, it seems Buice has done pretty much everything he could to show he’s changed since being sentenced:

The parole board said several issues influenced its decision Friday: Buice has had no major disciplinary cases since his last review; he has completed one or more vocational or academic programs that should help him get a full-time job outside prison; and his age at the time of the crime.

“During his last review, the parole panel carefully considered the totality of information available and used their discretionary authority to grant parole to Buice,” the parole board said in a statement.

If parole means anything, it seems to me it should mean the ability of a teenager sentenced to the entire life in years of a middle-aged man to prove himself worthy of lenience through service and general good behavior. What else could Buice have done, after all? Be innocent in the first place too? If parole is available for an offense, then arguments about the offense weighing against parole carry little weight for me.

Even people who should have been clamoring for Buice to continue to rot in prison seemed to taking up his cause:

Buice’s parole bid has been championed by Houston gay-rights advocate Ray Hill, who helped send Buice to prison but now says he wrongly portrayed Broussard’s death as a hate crime. Hill said that Buice, with whom he has become friends, is not a danger to society.

“How we solved it is: I painted it that way to get the attention of folks like you,” Hill said Monday. “Getting Jon Buice out of prison is a story of me trying to correct my ethical error.”

But Kahan said numerous local, state and national gay and lesbian organizations have continued to protest Buice’s release.

That certainly adds an interesting new wrinkle to things. Another article explores Hill’s change of heart in greater detail:

He says that the Woodlands 10 were drunk and high, there in the parking lot — angry that they’d been kicked out of the late-night club Numbers, spoiling for a fight. Poisoned with testosterone and male bravado, maybe, Hill says. But not by homophobia, he insists. Not by hate.

And if there wasn’t hate, what did that mean about the harsh hate-crime sentence Buice was serving? The sentence that Hill himself had pushed for?

Hill concluded that Buice hadn’t really committed a hate crime. To Hill’s way of thinking, Buice was just a stupid, drug- and booze-addled kid who’d committed an idiotic crime, not an ideological one.

What Hill learned, of course, is something that every decent criminal defense attorney already knows.

Almost no one is as bad as they might seem at first. And there’s almost always a psychoactive drug involved. Behind almost every heinous crime is a person who’s too young, too ill, or too high to have adequately thought things through.

Even if he had committed the crime out of hate, it at most took Jon Buice seventeen years to develop that. He’s spent that much plus almost half more inside prison trying to make amends. Why not give him the benefit of the doubt?

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