Grits has a provocative guest post from Michael Berryhill, an author and journalism professor, about the murder of Paul Broussard, the way it has been portrayed by the media, and the effort of convicted killer Jon Buice to win parole for himself. It’s worth reading and thinking about, and it’s also worth responding to.
To the Readers of Grits for Breakfast,
Last summer I wrote a letter of support for the parole of Jon Buice, a young man who pleaded guilty to the stabbing death of a 27-year-old gay man named Paul Broussard in 1991. Buice comes up for parole again this summer, and chances are his case will again become a public spectacle. Broussard’s mother, Nancy Rodriquez and her ally, the Houston victims rights advocate, Andy Kahan, will continue to argue that Buice should serve 27 years, one year for every year his victim lived. What follows is a revised version of that letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
I became intrigued by his case during the summer of 2011 when his parole was approved and subsequently reversed after a great deal of publicity. I decided to make Buice’s case the subject of a graduate seminar in journalism at Texas Southern University, where I am associate professor and chair of the department of journalism. The title of our project was “The Death of Paul Broussard, the Parole of Jon Buice,” and the subtitle was “How the News Media Have Played and Were Played.” Six graduate students and I delved into the history of the case. In addition to researching the media history of Buice’s story, we interviewed Jon Buice’s father, Jim Buice; the gay activist who drew media attention to the Broussard’s murder, Ray Hill; and the victims’ activist who is determined to keep Buice from obtaining parole, Andy Kahan.
Our goal was to understand how the news media works: how Hill used the news media to see to it that Buice and other young men who were with him were characterized and captured, and how Kahan has used the news media and politicians to see to it that Buice continues to stay in prison. Jon Buice is caught in the middle, as is, I believe, the parole board.
The theme is this: What is the meaning of forgiveness, legally, morally, religiously, ethically and politically? And how will the Texas parole board respond to the pressures of politics and publicity in this case? Will it do the right thing?
This story is about messages, and Andy Kahan, the City of Houston victims’ advocate said it best during an interview in November 2011. Kahan took credit for the reversal of Buice’s parole in the summer of 2011. He is proud of doing whatever it takes in using the news media to make Buice an example of his power. During our interview he questioned whether Buice should even be brought up for parole annually.
“It’s disappointing there haven’t been more setoffs,” Kahan said. “I’ve been barking in the media about this.”
Paroling Jon Buice “sends the wrong message,” Kahan said. But question is who is supposed to receive that message? Does paroling Jon Buice send the wrong message to teenaged boys out on a drunken night on the town? Are kids like this likely to even know of Jon Buice, much less connect his tragic actions to themselves?
The question the parole board has to answer, is not whether Andy Kahan will create so much bad publicity and political pressure that Buice should be held longer. The question is whether imprisoning Buice longer serves any purpose in his rehabilitation. Is Buice likely to come out of prison and commit a similar crime? Is he a rabid hater of homosexuals who will return to the Montrose and look for someone to kill? Who is Jon Buice today?
We know a few things for certain about him. At the age of 17 he pleaded guilty to stabbing Paul Broussard in a Montrose parking lot near a gay nightclub called Heaven. On July 4, 1991 Buice and nine other friends had driven in two cars from their homes in the Woodlands to the Montrose area. They had been drinking heavily and taking drugs. They challenged three men walking down the sidewalk and got into a fight and chased the men. Paul Broussard, 31, was cornered in a parking lot, and was defending himself well. Buice took a pocket knife and stabbed Broussard twice.
Broussard lay conscious on sidewalk for a long time before the EMS showed up. He asked the drivers to take him to the St. Joseph Hospital Emergency Room rather that one of the better-known trauma hospitals such as Ben Taub. According to medical records, it took several hours for Broussard to be diagnosed. He had showed few signs of external bleeding, but was bleeding internally and died the next morning, some would argue from medical negligence as well as the stab wounds.
The question about the mission of the Parole Board is a valid one, and I have no particular sympathy for Andy Kahan. What I find most interesting about Berryhill’s essay is that while he on the one hand condemns “the media” for sensationalizing aspects of the murder, he himself does a pretty good job of minimizing aspects of the murder. Consider:
“Paul Broussard, 31, was cornered in a parking lot, and was defending himself well.” Defending himself against ten attackers who were trying to kill him. Would it have made any difference if Broussard had curled into a fetal position instead, crying for his God and his mother to save him? Would it have made any difference if Broussard had managed to land a few good punches against his attackers, perhaps bloodying a nose or breaking a jaw before Buice stabbed him to death? To imply that this was somehow a fair fight seems more than a little slanted to me.
“Broussard lay conscious on sidewalk for a long time before the EMS showed up. He asked the drivers to take him to the St. Joseph Hospital Emergency Room rather that one of the better-known trauma hospitals such as Ben Taub.” The implication here is that Broussard couldn’t have been that badly hurt, even if he didn’t have the strength to get up. Berryhill is pushing the idea that Broussard himself bears some responsibility for his death. Let that be a lesson to the next poor soul who gets jumped by ten thugs from The Woodlands: Be sure you know which hospital to ask for.
“He had showed few signs of external bleeding, but was bleeding internally and died the next morning, some would argue from medical negligence as well as the stab wounds.” Again, Berryhill is trying to deflect the blame. Some would argue he’s playing the role of defense attorney here and not media critic.
I’m not here to argue the facts of the case, or whether the media did in fact report some things that weren’t true. We can certainly argue about the effect of media and public opinion on the parole process. I’d agree that the Andy Kahans of the world play an outsized role in the process, and that parole boards should be better shielded from such pressure. But the facts as Berryhill presents them, once stripped of their own bias, just aren’t that compelling to me.
Recent stories in the Houston Chronicle and the Austin American Statesman have high-lighted the improvements to Texas parole. Texans have come to realize that incarceration is expensive and not necessarily the best option for many criminals. Wouldn’t it be better to have Buice out on parole earning a living and paying taxes, rather than costing the state at least $18,000 a year to house in prison?
If Buice had killed a man in a bar fight, chances are would have long ago been paroled. Most murders are crimes of passion, committed under duress and intoxication. But he did not commit an ordinary murder. He committed a publicized crime, a crime with labels and exaggerations.
By 2010, Buice had become an invaluable member of the work team at Wynne prison, which rehabilitated old computers. Microsoft had awarded him certificates for his technical expertise, certificates that would enable him to work in the free world. Prison officials at Wynne constantly called on him to help them with computer problems. He had completed an undergraduate college degree in prison and was in line to be accepted in a graduate program. His disciplinary record was good. He was doing everything the prison system expected of an inmate to win parole.
But Buice didn’t kill a man in a bar fight. He killed a man that he and nine of his friends attacked without provocation. It was a deliberate act, not a heat of the moment reaction. I absolutely agree that more incarceration in general is a bad thing that has contributed to massive overspending on prison building and way too many people being locked up for things that aren’t worth being locked up for. I agree that many inmates are served better by things other than being locked up, and I commend Buice for his efforts to make a better person out of himself. But rehabilitation and public safety aren’t the only aspects of incarceration. Punishment is a part of it as well, and I am not particularly sympathetic to the argument that Buice has been punished enough. Berryhill suggests that denying Jon Buice parole sends a message to other offenders that the system is unfair, and that if theirs is a highly publicized case there may not be anything they can do to help themselves. Some would argue that by denying him parole, there’s a message being sent to would-be offenders that the penalty for killing someone is greater than they’d want to pay. Which message will be heard more clearly is another thing we can argue about.