Anarchy in Amarillo

Being a punk in the Panhandle was never easy. But when Brian Deneke crossed paths with an angry mob of football jocks, he never imagined it could get him killed.

"This is not a case about diversity or tolerance or judging people by the way they dress," he said in his tempered twang. "This case is about a gang of young men who chose a lifestyle, unorthodox as it is, designed to intimidate those around them, challenge authority, and provoke reaction from others."

From there on, in arguments and testimony spanning 13 days, Clark successfully shifted focus from Camp's actions to the quality of Brian Deneke's life.

It was a risky tactic; Clark knew it could backfire if he didn't do it convincingly. But he did his homework, dredging up bits of muck from Deneke's past, like the clash with the scoutmaster and an arrest for throwing a cinder block through someone's car window.

Chris Oles and his girlfriend, Jacqui Balderaz, sit on the median where Brian Deneke's crushed body came to rest. Both regret participating in the December 12, 1997, street fight that led to Deneke's death.
Mark Graham
Chris Oles and his girlfriend, Jacqui Balderaz, sit on the median where Brian Deneke's crushed body came to rest. Both regret participating in the December 12, 1997, street fight that led to Deneke's death.
Over and over, friends describe defendant Dustin Camp as a "good kid." An Amarillo jury would find him guilty of manslaughter in Deneke's death.
Mark Graham
Over and over, friends describe defendant Dustin Camp as a "good kid." An Amarillo jury would find him guilty of manslaughter in Deneke's death.

Clark scooped that stuff out along with generally distasteful observations about Deneke's cohorts. In the eyes of many Amarillo residents, the proceedings hit a low when Clark called the punks "goons."

"Goons. I called them drunk goons. I don't take it back," Clark says today before the question is even fully asked. "Goon -- someone who is wielding a club or a chain or a bat, dressed up with mascara on their face, spiky boots, dog collars, garish makeup. I can imagine what that person looks like as he approaches me with his hand up, ready to beat me. I call that an armed goon."

Slowly, the defense attorney built credibility for what seemed on its face preposterous -- that Dustin Camp had squashed Brian Deneke to keep him from killing one of the jocks, Justin Devore.

Clark didn't tiptoe around the distasteful fact that Camp had used his car as a weapon. "No doubt about it," he says now. "The law allows the use of a deadly weapon in defense of a third person, but only in the situation where deadly force is being used against the third person."

Clark's theory was a stretch, to say the least. The prosecution countered with testimony from Chris Oles, John King, and Jason Deneke that always pointed to Brian as victim, not perpetrator, a sort of James Byrd Jr. in a blue mohawk.

It didn't help the prosecution's case that the punks sometimes appeared smug, and that their own stories frequently conflicted. Clark says getting them to contradict themselves "was like taking candy from a baby."

Neither did it help when King got on the stand and flatly volunteered that, at one point in the fight, he had clobbered Justin Devore as hard as he could with a metal police baton. Until then, Devore hadn't a clue who hit him, splitting open his scalp. It took 13 staples and three interior stitches to patch it up.

The racially mixed jury chose whom and what it would believe, and in the end, Elise Thompson's eyewitness testimony would stand by far as the most credible account supporting a murder conviction. Her recollection of Camp's words and actions provided the jury with the evidence of intent, and Thompson held her ground under cross-examination.

None of the punks had known she would break ranks with the jocks and testify as she did. They admired her courage, the way she sat up straight and looked directly into the eyes of her questioner.

Somehow, it didn't matter. Given the court's charge to choose between innocence or a conviction for manslaughter or murder, the jury chose the lesser felony charge. Manslaughter represented the judgment that Deneke's death occurred as a result of the defendant's reckless conduct.

The jury, it seemed, wrestled hard to fit everything around the assumption that Dustin Camp was, and shall always remain, an essentially "good kid."

Camp didn't testify on his own behalf until the penalty phase of the trial. The climax was his apology to the Deneke family: "It's a tragic deal that happened," Camp said. "It shouldn't have happened."

Several people present say he never even bothered to look at the Denekes. The impression it left with David Trew, a friend of Brian Deneke's, was that the apology "sounded...insincere -- like something Warren Clark wrote on a cue card for him."

Even so, the jury returned what Clark and the district attorney, Rebecca King, admit was an uncommonly mild sentence: 10 years' probation and a $10,000 fine.

It doesn't bother Clark that he stirred up so much ill will in Amarillo through his aggressiveness. "This was war," he says. And so what if, in that war, he had found a legally justifiable way to lay out a city's prejudice before the jury?

None of this matters to Clark, who adds that the punks, their friends, even Deneke's parents, "refuse to this day to concede that Brian Deneke bore responsibility for what happened to him. He was drunk, he was armed, and he was beating people."

Of course, Camp was also drinking, had failed to render aid, didn't report the incident to police, and had already used his car as a weapon on two other occasions. Furthermore, Justin Devore had no recollection of being the endangered third party in Clark's self-defense scenario.

Sitting in his modest office a couple of blocks from the courthouse, Clark does an admirable job of concealing his glee that his client got off so easily. And no, he will not appeal the verdict. "The theory I presented fit the facts, and based on that, the jury simply could not convict him of murder," he says.

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