Details of their crimes faded from the public’s eye long ago, the perpetrators locked away and forgotten.
They were young then — 15-, 16-, 17-years-old — but not too young to receive a lengthy sentence during the “tough on crime” era of the 1990s.
Now as these offenders approach middle age, some face the possibility of parole — raising the questions: Are they prepared to return to society or maybe more importantly, is society prepared for them?
Activist Deanna Luprete believes 2023 just might be the year Texas legislators realize it’s finally time to give those offenders a second chance. The momentum toward reaching that goal had been building traction since 2017, she said.
The initiative, known as the Second Look bill, proposes re-evaluating offenders who receive “harsh” or life sentences as a juvenile once they have served at least 20 years.
Despite receiving bipartisan support, Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed the bill last summer, citing potential conflict with other jury instructions. He vowed to keep working with supporters during the next legislative session in 2023.
Luprete said she is hopeful Abbott keeps his promise, although she admits she’s not confident in the process of writing a new bill.
“I have conflicting emotions because the Senate rewrote the bill the last time and it didn’t resemble anything like what we started with,” she said.
The revision, she explained, excluded offenders who were 17 when they committed their crime — an omission that removed about 893 offenders out of 1,400 “second lookers” in Texas prisons from possible consideration.
“This year we will try to get the bill put back together the way we originally thought,” Luprete said.
On a mission
Luprete’s interest in young offenders came at a time in her life when she grappled with her own son’s incarceration in California. Visitations were limited since she lived in Texas.
“Basically, I told God if he would take care of my son, I would take care of someone else’s here,” she said.
She became involved in a prison ministry where she met more young offenders.
“It kind of broke my heart,” Luprete said.
She also founded the Epicenter Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping youth offenders serving extreme sentences in the adult prison system.
She said the name reflects the message from the Bible in Acts 16:26 — “Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose.”
During her weekly meetings at the C.T. Terrell Unit near Rosharon, she met volunteer David McMillan who impressed her with his Bible knowledge and his sense of humor.
McMillan is serving a life sentence for kidnapping and robbing 23-year-old Nicholas West in Tyler in 1993. McMillan was 17 at the time of the crime.
He is one of 35 offenders asked to write an essay to be included in the book, “A Word to Myself.” The essays focus on what the offenders would say to their younger selves.
The essays, Luprete said, show how the offenders have progressed in taking responsibility and improving themselves.
“It makes these people, people instead of a TCJ number,” Luprete said.
The roaring 90s
Researchers perplexed by a spike in juvenile crime during the 1990s offered a variety of theories, but one particular opinion is credited for fueling fear and a “get tough” movement across the nation.
Professor John Dilulio Jr., a criminologist and political scientist at Princeton University at the time, predicted an increase in violent crimes committed by impulsive juveniles without remorse. Dilulio called these young offenders “superpredators.”
His theory – and an increase in highly-publicized crimes committed by juveniles — fueled a panic that led nearly every state to enact laws that “dramatically increased the treatment of juveniles as adults” during the 90s, according to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative.
A subsequent decline in juvenile crime later forced Dilulio to admit his prediction was wrong, but laws allowing juveniles to be tried as adults at an earlier age and making it easier to transfer children into the adult system remained.
Scientific studies on adolescent development subsequently showed a child’s brain is not yet fully developed even at the age of 18. As a result, they do not have adult levels of judgment or the ability to consider the risks or the consequences of their behavior, plus teens also are more susceptible to peer pressure and generally lack impulse control, according to those studies.
Luprete said Second Look supporters produced t-shirts imprinted with “Superpredators Aren’t Real” to make a point.
In her experience, Luprete said she has seen offenders mature in prison, working to improve themselves by learning skills or educational degrees and participating in other self-improvement programs.
After serving 20 or 30 years, however, these offenders can become stagnant.
“How much is enough? They’ve done everything they can. There is nothing else to do,” she said. “They are ready to come home and contribute to society.”
Luprete insists the goal of adopting a Second Look law is to identify offenders who are rehabilitated and can become productive members of society.
After working years with these “second lookers,” Luprete said she can recognize sincere change.
“My litmus test is: Would I want them living next to my mother and helping her take out the trash?” she said.
The murders of Susan Van Orden and Nicholas West in 1993 shared many elements despite occurring in East Texas five days and about 80 miles apart.
Both Van Orden and West had been kidnapped by a group of young men and robbed of their vehicles before being beaten and shot; and both cases involved teenage defendants who are now seeking a second chance after serving nearly 30 years in prison.
November 25, 1993 – Marshall, Texas
News of Susan Van Orden’s death ripped through the Marshall community stirring emotions like a rock cutting through a hornet’s nest.
Three teenage boys — one of whom Van Orden knew — abducted the 16-year-old who was later shot and beaten to death.
Law enforcement officers caught the perpetrators — Kendrick Allen, 17, Torvos Simpson, 16, and Jermon Clark — within hours after a high-speed chase. The trio had been on their way to California in the victim’s car.
“I think it’s the idea of the brutality of it all that bothers me the most,” Myra Leonard, a teacher at Karnack High School told the Marshall News Messenger days after the murder. “The very idea of the intent to plan the way that it was done, I can’t imagine that.”
Prosecutors believed the elements of Van Orden’s murder warranted federal charges against Allen, Simpson, and Clark as adults — a status that took nearly two years to obtain.
Court records showed a variety of school infractions involving Simpson and Clark including incidents of violence. Clark, who had been expelled two weeks before the murder, also had been charged with conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance, evading arrest, probation violations, indecent exposure and being a runaway.
Both Simpson and Clark reportedly had threatened to kill staff members at a juvenile detention center, according to court records.
Allen previously had been adjudicated for assault, terroristic threat, violating probation, unlawful use of a motor vehicle as well as being charged with criminal trespass, evading arrest and burglary.
All three defendants, psychiatrist Dr. Willard Gold concluded, were “beyond rehabilitative efforts.”
After losing their battle to be treated as juvenile offenders, all three defendants pleaded guilty to federal charges for stealing Van Orden’s car and possessing a firearm.
Allen and Simpson each received a life sentence plus five years. Allen, however, also faced a state capital murder charge. To avoid a possible death sentence, he agreed to plead guilty to murder and received a second life sentence.
Punishing Clark for his role seemed more of a challenge to decide considering his age and level of culpability.
The victim’s mother, Jean Hogan, initially supported a life sentence for Clark too, but later agreed to a 50-year term without parole “only because I truly believe you would change your life,” she later wrote in a letter to Clark.
During his sentencing, Clark turned to Hogan and offered an apology, according to a Marshall News Messenger report.
“I am so very sorry — that comes from the bottom of my heart — for what happened,” he said. “I hope that one day you will find it in your heart … to forgive me. Maybe not today, maybe not next year, but some day. I’m very sorry that I didn’t stop it.”
Hogan forgave Clark nearly four years later.
“In my heart I have learned the way of forgiveness is through my faith,” she wrote. “I have been able to say to you, I forgive you, as I know Susan has.”
She, however, contended Clark needed to serve at least 15 years. Hogan died in 2012.
Her letters are now part of a clemency petition Tyler attorney Deborah Race filed after all appeals were exhausted. Race has filed the petition with every president since 2016 to no avail. Clark is not scheduled to be released until 2037. He will be nearly 60 years old.
November 30, 1993 — Tyler, Texas
The death of Nicholas West forced Tyler residents to recognize members of their community who lived in fear and silence because of their sexual orientation.
The 23-year-old medical records clerk was abducted from Bergfeld Park and driven to a clay pit near Noonday where he was beaten and robbed of his money and truck before being shot at least nine times.
Investigators arrested 29-year-old Donald Aldrich, Henry Dunn, 19, and David McMillan, a 17-year-old high school dropout.
Statements from all three defendants revealed West had been targeted, in part, because he was gay. That motive sparked rallies by gay rights activists and news stories across the country.
Although investigators labeled West’s death a hate crime, prosecutors charged all three with capital murder, because it is the most serious charge.
Prosecutors approached the motive quite differently in separate trials for Aldrich and Dunn with the hate crime aspect playing a far more significant role in Dunn’s trial in Tyler.
Aldrich, characterized as a charismatic leader and “seasoned criminal,” and Dunn, who reportedly admitted participating in gay bashing and other carjackings, both received death sentences. Dunn was executed in 2003 and Aldrich died by lethal injection in 2004.
Jurors rejected a capital murder charge for McMillan, who was convicted of kidnapping and robbery instead. His age and that the fact he missed hitting West may have been factors.
During the sentencing phase, prosecutors presented jurors with a list of crimes alleged to have been written by the defendant, but it was unclear whether he actually committed those crimes or just knew about them.
In his defense, witnesses characterized McMillan as a “follower” who was easily influenced by others and sought acceptance from others. A Tyler psychologist told jurors he believed the defendant “did not represent a significant risk” for committing acts of violence in the future.
Defense attorneys asked jurors for a probated sentence, arguing “there’s potential in David McMillan to be a leader and to have some chance at a future.” Prosecutors disagreed saying the maximum prison sentence was appropriate for a person who has “no regard for human life or liberty.”
Morris West, the victim’s father, attended every trial but has never granted an interview.
Jurors sentenced McMillan to life in prison with the possibility for parole after 30 years — a minimum he is set to reach in 2023. He will be 47 years old.
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