By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The boy had a cocky reply, Duncan testified. "He said that he had already killed one person...and that he wasn't scared of me because I had a gun."
Other hospital workers told how Debrow played a bizarre game with them, trying to get them to talk about a recent murder. Linda Garcia, a nursing supervisor, testified that Debrow smiled the entire time as they chatted: "Tell me, tell me, tell me about the murder this weekend," he begged.
The most damning testimony, however, came from a hospital chaplain named Charles Pollard who'd gone up to minister to what he thought to be a "very distraught patient." Pollard found the boy to be receptive and courteous. He talked about his dream of being a football player, how tough he was on the field. Pollard, who was near retirement, quietly listened. But the conversation took an ominous turn when Debrow suddenly announced that he would have to go to jail.
"Why?" Pollard asked. "He said, 'Well...I killed a man.' And he said, 'When you killed a man, you have to go to jail.'" Debrow asked Pollard if he'd been watching the news, if he'd heard about the taxi driver who got killed. "And he said, well, he was the one that shot the man. Then he told me several different stories about how it happened, but continued to come back to the fact that he pulled the trigger."
Those stories gave different versions of a certain "uncle"'s involvement in the crime, Pollard testified. Once, Debrow said his uncle--actually, distant relative and ex-con Floyd Hardeman--ordered him to shoot the man. Another time, the uncle told him to aim the gun at the cab driver's head and it simply went off.
(Today, Debrow says that he doesn't remember specific details about the crime, including who pulled the trigger, because of memory loss from his head injuries.)
Whatever the case, Pollard knew he had a lost and desperate child on his hands. "At first, he dealt with it from the platform of 'I'm tough,'" Pollard said in court. "And the only time that he...really showed any somberness...was when we got to talking about spiritual things. And he said, 'The only thing I'm afraid of in life is God. And I'm afraid of God. Because no one else can do anything to me, but God can.'"
Where others saw only callousness, Pollard saw "some tenderness, and some openness, and some sorrow."
The greater part of Pollard's testimony, however, was heard outside the presence of the jury as state District Judge Andy Mireles considered whether Debrow's words were spoken to a clergyman with the expectation of confidentiality. He decided that most of it should remain secret.
But the testimony about Debrow's supposed boasting didn't make much of an impression on Castro-Guerra anyway. The shoe--that was the clincher for her. "I don't think there was even any doubt that he was there" at the scene of the crime, she says. Debrow's court-appointed lawyer, Andy Logan, tried to shift some of the focus to the boy's much older accomplice--convicted murderer Hardeman. "We don't know what happened in that cab," he said in his closing statement, "but we know Floyd Hardeman." Holding to her understanding of the charge Judge Mireles had given her, however, which instructed the jury to find Debrow culpable if he promoted, assisted or encouraged the crime, Castro-Guerra and her fellow jurors deliberated only 75 minutes before answering "true" to the question of murder.
Throughout the trial, Judge Mireles' courtroom was packed with reporters and family members. And still, Edwin sat impassively beside his mother, even while lead prosecutor Gammon Guinn hammered away at him. "At 12 years old, he is cold," Guinn concluded. "...Maybe he had a problem. But should we cut off society's nose to spite our face and send him back out there? ...Do we let him do it again?"
Castro-Guerra had a hard time relating to this unnaturally cool child. "I expected this little boy to be crying and his mother to be consoling him," he says. "But there was no emotion."
What was left inside Debrow would only come out later, the boy would write, when he went back to his cell and cried and cried. Would open tears have made a difference? Should they? What's certain, Judge Mireles recalls, is that the jury took the greatest care in reaching its decision about the boy's future.
In the sentencing phase they finally heard scraps of information that helped them make some sense out of a monstrous act: Debrow's messy family life, his scant schooling, the utter lack of effective adult supervision. That testimony was balanced with that of teachers from the "achievement center" where he once attended school, who spoke fondly of a bright boy, a teacher's pet who responded well to structure and educational challenges and was quick to help the other kids and "make them feel good about themselves."
It was just a flash in four days of grueling testimony from more than 20 witnesses, a tiny moment when a boy's potential stood weakly against his overwhelming past.