By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Sometime afterward, Vonda Dennis upped and left with her son and refused to give Tollette her new address. She had earlier told juvenile authorities that Billy played football, had good grades and attendance in school and was, literally, a Boy Scout.
The juvenile department's social report on the boy does yield one moment of unintended comedy. Under "Hobbies, Leisure Time," the report states cheerily, as though it were a menu of cruise-ship activities, "The subject indicates that he enjoys smoking cigarettes, smoking marijuana, snorting cocaine, selling crack, playing billiards, gambling (dominoes, dice, poker) and just hanging out with his fellow gang members."
In everything but his stature, Dennis seemed to fulfill the image of the superpredator: the young thug without a conscience, roving the streets and searching for random victims.
Dennis had already made a mark of sorts by becoming the youngest-ever juvenile certified to stand trial as an adult in Dallas, a status made possible by a series of get-tough juvenile justice reforms championed by Governor George W. Bush and passed by the state Legislature in 1995. Born of the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, pushed onto the national agenda through frightening reports of rising juvenile crime, the reforms included a provision lowering the age of certification for kids who committed violent crimes from 15 to 14.
Lead prosecutor Robert Dark knew what the public wanted to do with young thugs like Dennis: lock them up. Forget juvenile detention, forget rehab, give them hard time. Dark hit that note in his closing arguments, telling the jury, "He acts like an adult. He commits crimes like an adult. He must be punished like an adult."
And so he was. After nearly seven hours of deliberation, the jury would return the toughest verdict possible, guilty of capital murder. The defense, operating on the premise that Sabour's killing was an accident, had not called a single witness.
When the sentence was read--life in prison, with a minimum of 40 years--Billy's mother broke down in the courtroom.
Billy, who had scowled at Sabour's son when he took the witness stand but otherwise remained expressionless during the trial, lost it when he got back to his cell in the county jail. He remembers crying there. But the weight of his sentence didn't hit him until he was transferred to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Clemens Unit in Brazoria, which has a special program for juvenile offenders sent to adult prison. His first meeting with counselors is stuck in the memory of Diana Coates, the program's director.
"We met with him, and he started crying," she says. "I remember he said, 'I just want to go home.'"
In a rare show of emotion, Billy Ray Dennis Jr. goes silent and hangs his head.
The question: When are you up for parole?
"2037," he murmurs.
No longer a skinny boy, Dennis is 5-foot-9, in the prime of young adulthood and built like a cornerback, with sculpted muscles and a compact frame.
In 2037, he will be a 54-year-old man.
"I ain't going nowhere," he says. "It ain't even possible, man, that I'm gonna be here 40 years and come up for parole and they let me out. Way it's going now, I'm gon' be dead before I go home."
The only reason he hangs in there, he says, is because of his mother, who is raising Dennis' little brother somewhere in the Dallas area. "That's the only reason my heart still pump, because of my mother," Dennis says. "I miss my family."
He paints an idealized picture of Vonda Dennis, even though his juvenile file tells another story: of neglect, of drunkenness, of constant instability. She has never visited him in prison, though she writes often. Dennis, in fact, has had only one visitor, in '99: an aunt.
"My mama did her best for all us kids, right?" he says. "I don't blame this situation that I'm in on my mother. It's on me, because I wasn't thinking what I was doing."
He stops short, though, of accepting the blame for his crime. He claims Sabour hit the gun, causing it to fire. Yes, the gun was loaded, he says; yes, he approached Sabour and pointed it at him, but his finger wasn't on the trigger. It was "'round about the trigger."
Besides, it was someone else's fault that he got caught, even though the shooting took place in front of several people: "Jig heads--like drunks. A bunch of dope sellers, gangsters." A young girl, he complains, who "was supposed to be my homegirl," saw what happened and told police. She testified against him.
As for the earlier shooting, which took place just 25 days before the killing of Sabour, Dennis blames it on another person altogether, even though the victim picked him out of an eight-person lineup, and an eyewitness identified the shooter as "Little Billy." Police were looking to arrest Dennis on the aggravated assault charge at the time of the killing.
It is a dreary life in administrative segregation--"That's where they keep the bad apples at," Dennis says. He says he spends his time talking to his neighbors, joking around, working out and reading sports and entertainment magazines. TDCJ, it turns out, has yielded the one little bit of progress in Dennis' life: He can now read.