Texas prosecutors sent Terence Andrus to death row when the 20-year-old, high on PCP, tried to steal cars in a Houston suburb and ended up shooting and killing two people in 2008. Since then, his lawyers have been 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, to provide “education, treatment, and skills.” Instead, Andrus was exposed to gangs, dosed on psychotropic drugs and sent to solitary confinement more than 77 times, sometimes at his own request.
The case is an recent example of a narrative familiar to experts, in which a victimizer was first a victim of a dysfunctional and abusive juvenile institution run by the state, reports the Marshall Project, with Slate. 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,” says 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 youth 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. Andrus does not seek to excuse the actions that got him to death row. He talked in an interview 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.” Lawyers in other cases have come to similar conclusions about how juvenile institutions contribute to crime.