12-year-old Killer

What's it like to end up in prison as a teen-ager? Edwin Debrow Jr., Bill Everett and Brittany Pollard all committed violent crimes that found them on the wrong side of Texas' get-tough juvenile justice laws. They tell their stories here for the first time--how they got in trouble, how they've survived, what their futures hold--as the Dallas Observer concludes its series on juvenile justice in Texas. In the 1990s, when Texas experienced an unprecedented wave of violent crime, Governor George W. Bush and Texas legislators responded by overhauling the state's juvenile justice system. They prescribed much longer sentences for violent offenders, expanded the range of crimes that could land a youth in adult prison and worked hard to eliminate the perception that young thugs would be pampered in state schools and juvenile detention centers instead of doing hard time for hard crime. Debrow's 1991 crime got a lot of press; President George H. Bush singled out the 12-year-old convicted killer in a speech, calling his case "truly horrifying." The San Antonio native remains one of the youngest Texans ever convicted of murder. Everett, a methamphetamine addict living in rural Palo Pinto County, participated in a comically bungled bank robbery attempt when he was 17. His crime was obscure, but he's gone from deeply troubled kid to model inmate under the tutelage of a caring mentor in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Youthful Offender Program in Brazoria. Brittany Pollard's story, which will be told in next week's paper, is one of the strangest cases in the annals of Dallas County's juvenile courts. The three have two things in common: tough sentences that landed them in adult prison while they were still in their teens and grotesquely dysfunctional families. Through their own words and experiences, the youths provide an intimate perspective on what it's like to be a kid in the big house.

I knew I was headed in the wrong direction. I began to see early warning signs, as I was growing up. I grew up in San Antonio, Texas in one of San Antonio's poorest neighborhoods which was the Northeast Side. The environment that I was surrounded by seemed too dangerous and I began to get involved into that lifestyle. Back then I could never see my life the way it is now. I could never believe that I would end up in prison. My life took a dramatic turn on September 21, 1991 when I took the life of a cab driver by the name of Curtis Edwards, when I was a 12-year-old kid. I can't seem to understand why I became so violent. I knew one thing for sure, and that was that I had to accept reality as it was. I had just took the life of another man and I couldn't believe the things that were hidden and waiting ahead of me...

Set aside for a moment that, by the age of 12, Edwin Carl Debrow Jr. had witnessed two murders, carried handguns for so long that "the idea of it was very routine" and stayed in a succession of shabby homes where life included having the door busted down by cops as his big brother gulped down $200 worth of crack cocaine in the bathroom.

Forget that prison psychiatrists and social workers have affixed to him their profession's clumsy labels--anti-social personality disorder, bipolar disorder, impulse control disorder--and have dosed him with an array of mind-rearranging drugs, anything to strangle the "hate built up inside" him.

This isn't really about nature vs. nurture, the mesmerizing allure of the gangsta life or fuzzy sentimentalities about the loss of innocence.

Edwin Carl Debrow Jr. isn't having any of it. You toss him a lifeline, a likely excuse, a plausible way to shift some blame, and he throws it right back. "I knew right and wrong," he says, repeating the statement several times in an interview and in his own hand-scrawled words, which he has recorded on wrinkled theme paper in a 190-page manuscript. Even the title slaps down any urge to sympathize: At first, he called his story "Lost Boy." Now he has scratched out the words in black pen and written "12-year-old Killer" instead.

While a wind whips the Texas flag outside, Debrow is hunched in a plastic chair in an airless, yellow-lit prison office, hands shackled behind his back, a guard at each side. As an "administrative segregation" prisoner at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Clements Unit in Amarillo, Debrow experiences life outside his cell only one hour a day, and his meals are shoved at him through a slot in the door. Now 22 and 10 years into a 27-year sentence for murder, he has learned to hold his emotions tightly. He speaks in flat, staccato words, and the only thing that gives away any affect is a constantly jiggling left knee.

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Julie Lyons
Contact: Julie Lyons