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Death Sentences

They Went to Prison as Kids. Now They’re on Death Row.

Fight clubs, solitary confinement and neglect make juveniles angrier and more violent.

Terence Andrus, wearing a white prison uniform, looks through glass.  A phone hangs on either side of the divider.
Terence Andrus suffered through brutal conditions in abusive Texas youth prisons before eventually ending up on death row.

One telling of Terence Andrus’ story — the version that prosecutors focused on when they convinced a jury to send him to death row — begins in 2008, when the 20-year-old, high on PCP, tried to steal cars in a Houston suburb and ended up shooting and killing two people.

This article was published in partnership with Slate.

Since then, his lawyers have been telling a story that starts much earlier, writing in court filings about the parental neglect and psychosis that marked his childhood. Four years before the murders, the state had a chance to help him, when he was arrested for robbery and sentenced to a juvenile prison, which aimed, on paper, to provide the 16-year-old with “education, treatment, and skills.”

Instead, Andrus was exposed to gangs, dosed on psychotropic drugs and tossed in solitary confinement more than 77 times, sometimes at his own request. In a separate scandal, shortly after he left, the state overhauled its juvenile prison system after revelations that the Texas Youth Commission’s top administrators were sexually abusing some of the youths in their care.

Andrus’ case is the most recent example of a narrative familiar to legal and medical experts, in which a victimizer was first a victim of a dysfunctional and abusive juvenile institution run by the state. “Prosecutors often weaponized these childhood traumas, saying that the state tried all these things to help and it didn’t work, so these boys are just inherently evil,” explained historian Bill Bush, author of “Who Gets a Childhood?: Race and Juvenile Justice in Twentieth-Century Texas.” “It’s dishonest.”

The Marshall Project found a dozen cases of death row prisoners who previously spent time in youth lockups. Most were in Texas, where such facilities have been plagued by abuse for decades. In October, federal prosecutors announced a new round of investigations into all five of the state’s youth prisons.

The U.S. Supreme Court has been unsympathetic to death row prisoners in recent years, declining to stop any of the 13 executions pursued by the Trump administration. So it was all the more notable when, in 2020, the court ruled in Andrus’ favor, ordering a Texas state court to reconsider his claims. Andrus has argued that his original trial lawyer failed to adequately tell jurors about his past. The state court pushed back, ruling against Andrus. Now, his lawyers are asking the justices in Washington to intervene again.

In a recent interview, Andrus did not seek to excuse the actions that got him to death row. But he talked about a court hearing five years ago that featured testimony about his time in youth prisons. “I had never connected the dots,” he said. “But that's when I knew it essentially had a big influence on my mind and how it worked.”

Sitting nearby, his lawyer Gretchen Sween said she felt “physically ill” and “complicit” as a voter and taxpayer, hearing what he was subjected to in juvenile prisons.

Lawyers in other cases have come to similar conclusions about how juvenile institutions contribute to crime. When John Grant was executed in Oklahoma last October for the 1998 murder of a prison worker, his lawyer Sarah Jernigan wrote in a press release of how Grant had stolen to provide for his impoverished siblings as a child. He was sentenced to a juvenile facility and faced “beatings, rapes and extended periods in solitary confinement,” all of which exacerbated his mental illness, and set him on the eventual path to his crime. “We must not forget Oklahoma’s hand in this tragic story,” Jernigan concluded.

The U.S. has been locking up kids for more than a century, generally with bad results. According to Bush, the historian, the first reform schools, started in the northeast in the 1830s, aimed to rehabilitate troubled city kids through communion with nature.

In practice, they became work farms riddled with violence and abuse.

Across the country, that model eventually gave way to “training schools,” with some additional classes. “We see, again and again, kids reporting that when they get out of these training schools, they were much angrier and more violent than they were when they went in,” Bush said.

In the 20th century, many states moved towards youth prisons. In Texas, kids started coming forward to tell the media about what Bush described as “exotic torture” and abuse. Many joined a sprawling 1971 class action lawsuit that aimed to end the use of corporal punishment and solitary confinement.

The case coincided with a national trend away from incarceration; more children were placed in group homes that emphasized treatment. Then came the ‘War on Drugs’ and nationwide fears of teenage “superpredators.” The pendulum swung back: more juveniles incarcerated, more stories of abuse.

“It was the same problems over and over again,” Bush said. “The reasons the feds are investigating the Texas Juvenile Justice Department right now are the same reasons people were trying to make changes in the 1800s, and the 1940s, and 15 years ago. The institutions themselves can’t be reformed.”

Researchers have long found that incarceration, for both children and adults, can actually increase the likelihood that they will commit more crimes. A 2015 study examined 35,000 juveniles arrested in Chicago over 10 years, finding that those incarcerated in their youth were less likely to finish high school and more likely to end up in prison as adults. “This punitive treatment of youth confirms their self-identity as ‘criminals’ and increases their anger, trauma, and reliance on physical force,” explained University of Texas professor Michele Deitch in a 2017 defense affidavit for death row prisoner Juan Ramirez, who tried to escape gang involvement as a teenager before he was sent to a youth prison dominated by gang violence.

In an affidavit from another case, a former youth prison counselor said he periodically checked the Texas death row roster, looking for children he’d worked with years earlier.

Another death row prisoner, Teddrick Batiste, was arrested while in high school for joyriding — stealing cars — and sent to a juvenile facility, where, according to an ex-girlfriend, he learned “more and better ways to steal cars.” He spent time at Sheffield Boot Camp, hundreds of miles from his family and friends in Houston. According to Charles Rotramel, CEO of a juvenile support nonprofit, he had to “beat up people to avoid being beaten up himself.” He left with post-traumatic stress, hypervigilance and a “diminished sense of self-worth.”

In a 2013 court affidavit, Rotramel said that with different “institutional responses,” it was “likely that Batiste’s life would have taken an entirely different trajectory.” At 23, he gunned down Horace Holiday during a 2009 robbery outside a gas station in order to steal his Cadillac, and he was sentenced to death.

Before he ended up on death row, Clinton Young spent several years in Texas juvenile prisons and saw how they sometimes fostered violence.

“We had unmet needs, so we would engage in delinquent behavior to meet those needs,” he told The Marshall Project when he called from county jail to talk about his time in the “gladiator units” of the Texas Youth Commission. “It’s a place where violence is a form of communication,” he added. “There was nothing to do but beat the hell out of each other.” After getting out, Young said, it was hard to relate to regular people — and in less than a year he got into meth and ended up back behind bars. After two decades on death row, last year a court overturned his death sentence due to prosecutorial misconduct and he has since been released on bond as the state decides whether to retry him.

Like many on death row, Terence Andrus suffered extensive trauma from a young age. When the Supreme Court ordered a lower court to revisit his case, the justices opened with the fact that his mother started selling drugs out of their apartment when he was 6 years old. According to court records, she soon turned to sex work to support her “spiraling drug addiction” and left her five children to “fend for themselves,” frequently without food. By 12, Andrus was head of the household. “He cleaned for his siblings,” the court wrote, “put them to bed, cooked breakfast for them, made sure they got ready for school, helped them with their homework and made them dinner.”

But Andrus was struggling. He’d been diagnosed with affective psychosis, and he’d started selling his mother’s pills at school, in an attempt to earn money to help his family. When he got caught, he landed on probation. Then, he fell in with some guys who enlisted him in a robbery. He later said he was the lookout, although police believed he held the victim at gunpoint. He was sent to a Texas Youth Commission facility, where, court records say, “Kids banged on the steel doors of their cells to demand attention, as the guards blasted classical music to drown out their pleas.”

At one state school, Andrus recounted a spare room set aside for kids to assault each other. “We were supposed to be having group, but it was essentially a fight club,” he said. “They even put newspaper over the windows.”

Given the constant chaos, Andrus frequently asked to be sent to solitary confinement, where the staff would take his shoes and books and all his belongings. “You have a little thin mat and your thoughts, that's it,” he recalled. The cells were dimly lit, because the tinted windows blocked out the sunlight. The walls were often covered with semen from bored boys who’d been there before. To avoid touching the mess, Andrus wrapped his shoeless feet in toilet paper. By the time he got out, he was always on high alert. “After you put on a defense for so long… when you get out in the world, you automatically cringe at everything,” he said.

Soon, Andrus withdrew into himself. He considered suicide and turned to drugs. “I started popping ecstasy like it was candy,” he recalled. According to court records, on Oct. 15, 2008, he smoked PCP-laced marijuana before attempting two carjackings. In the parking lot of a Kroger grocery store, he fatally shot Avelino Diaz, whose wife was inside buying milk, and Kim-Phuong Vu Bui, who was in the passenger seat of another car. Her husband, the driver, was wounded.

The Fort Bend County District Attorney’s office, which pursued the death sentence against Andrus, declined to comment on the case and ongoing litigation. But at the 2012 trial, assistant district attorney John Hawkins portrayed the discussion of social factors as an effort to evade blame. “At some point in time in our life, we have to take responsibility for our actions and the results of our actions,” Hawkins told the jury. “It would have been nice if he was raised by a doctor with $250,000 worth of income every year. Well, guess what? Not everybody is.” In recent court filings, the district attorney's office accused Andrus of attacking guards and pursuing a “reign of terror” while in jail awaiting trial.

Now, with his case in front of the Supreme Court, Andrus hopes that the people who have power over his fate will be more compassionate. “I just want them to understand and to have the same mercy and empathy that they would have for their loved ones, who have been influenced by their circumstances and environments,” he said, peering through the visiting room glass. “I want them to see me for me, and not this crime.”

Stories like Andrus’ will continue to emerge as state officials set execution dates — a dozen are on the books for the rest of 2022 — and the condemned ask governors to show mercy. “Every client I have had experienced this pivotal moment, where an institution that was meant to protect and care for him, broke him in a way that he could not come back from,” said Elizabeth Vartkessian, executive director of Advancing Real Change, a group of investigators who work with defense teams arguing for less-severe sentences. “What did we think was going to happen when this kind of violation occurs to a child?”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed court filings in opposition to Terence Andrus’ appeals as being filed by the Texas Attorney General’s Office. It was the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office.

Keri Blakinger Twitter Email is a former staff writer whose work focuses on prisons and jails. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times. She is the organization's first formerly incarcerated reporter. Her memoir, "Corrections in Ink", came out in June 2022.

Maurice Chammah Twitter Email is a staff writer and host of the podcast “Just Say You're Sorry,” as well as the author of “Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty.” He writes narrative features on a range of criminal justice subjects, including the death penalty, forensics and art and music by incarcerated people.