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Bush's Conservative Compassion: Allowing a Life Sentence for Three Bounced Checks

by Matthew T. Clarke

Texas Governor George Bush has based his presidential aspirations on the questionable concept of compassionate conservatism, but how compassionate is the Texas criminal justice system in dealing with its citizens under the Bush regime.

Consider the case of Billy Wayne Brown, a Texas prisoner doing a life sentence for having written three insufficient funds checks with a total value of $ 952.

Billy Wayne was first arrested in 1968 when he bounced a $56 car insurance check His second case came in 1975: a $256 check for a CB radio and antenna. The third case was for a $640 rent check he bounced in October, 1981.

Billy Wayne had signed the check in question in his third case, but it was a pre-signed check that his wife had torn out of his checkbook and used to write the overdraft. He felt he was innocent, he had paid off the bad check, so he took the case to a jury trial. On April 27, 1982, the jury convicted him of the theft of service by writing the bad check.

Three strikes laws are nothing new to the Texas criminal justice system. In their previous incarnation, they were miserable failures as Billy Wayne's case shows. Billy Wayne has always honestly admitted his prior convictions. Once convicted of the third felony, the judge had no choice under the then existing three strikes law, but to sentence Billy Wayne to life in prison.

Ironically, Texas changed the three strikes law six months after Billy Wayne's conviction. The same change in the law reduced the offense Billy Wayne was convicted of, bouncing a check for less than $750, to a misdemeanor. Had Billy Wayne been convicted under the changed law for a misdemeanor, the most he could have received was one year in the county jail. Even if he had been tried for felony theft with two prior felony convictions, under the new three strikes law the sentencing range would have been 25 years to life.

Billy Wayne's trial judge, the honorable Billy John Edwards, District Judge of the 42nd Judicial District Court of Taylor County, Texas, has twice written the Board of Pardons and Paroles, asking them to commute Billy Wayne's sentence to 25 years, the sentence he states he would have given Billy Wayne had he been convicted of felony theft under the amended three strikes law. The board refused to commute the sentence.

August 28, 1989, Billy Wayne made parole. He moved to Rowlett, Texas, started working for Interstate Batteries System of America and was placed on annual report parole status after fourteen months. He became a pillar of the community. So successful was he that, in February 1995, Interstate Batteries honored him as the top salesman for the company in the nation. The awards presentation took place in Dallas. Billy Wayne was at the top of his profession and having one of the best times of his life. Soon events would set in motion the chain of events which would lead to the worst times of his life.

On his way back to his home from the awards banquet, Billy Wayne was pulled over by an inexperienced Rockwall (Texas) City police officer after doing a rolling stop at an intersection at night. The officer asked Billy Wayne if he had been drinking and he admitted to having imbibed two mixed drinks prior to the banquet five hours earlier. The police office performed a field sobriety test, which Billy Wayne was able to easily pass except for touching his nose while standing on his left leg, which has a pin and two screws from a previous ankle injury. As he reached down to show the officer the scars from the ankle injury, Billy Wayne made the mistake of telling the police officer that he didn't want any trouble because he was on parole. The police officer immediately drew his gun and placed Billy Wayne under arrest for DWI.

Billy Wayne was booked into jail, during which he was able to tell the booking officer from memory his license plate and driver's license numbers. All of this, as well as the field sobriety test and Billy Wayne walking down a long corridor coming into the jail, was on videotape. When the case went to trial twenty-three months later, all the defense attorney did was show the jury the video tape and argue that Billy Wayne obviously was not drunk. The jury acquitted Billy Wayne after about a half hour of deliberation. Billy Wayne went back to his job and family thinking all was well.

However, all was not well. Billy Wayne was arrested three weeks later for parole violation. Amazingly, the violation was based on his having been arrested for the very same DWI the jury acquitted him of and for not reporting the arrest to the parole board. Billy Wayne, whose only parole requirement at the time was to fill out a written report form once a year and mail it to the parole board in Austin, Texas, had believed that he did not have to report the arrest as it did not result in a conviction.

Despite numerous character witness who were well known within the community, on April 29, 1997, the parole board revoked Billy Wayne's parole. Now Billy Wayne Brown languishes in a Texas prison, having done over ten years flat on his life sentence, having done nothing more serious than bouncing three checks.

Even while in prison, Billy Wayne has not set aside his ambitious spirit. During his incarceration he has: (1) earned an Associate of Science Degree from Henderson County Community College; (2) earned an Associate of Arts Degree (with honors) from Alvin Community College; (3) completed a U.S. Department of Labor vocation training course in Data Processing and Data Entry; (4) earned a Vocation Certificate in Welding from Lee College; (5) earned a Bachlor of Science Degree in Business Administration from Stephen F. Austin University; (6) enrolled in a Master's Degree Program at University of HoustonClear Lake; (7) enrolled in advanced Data Processing at Alvin Community College.

Should we hold Texas Governor George Bush responsible for the harsh sentence Billy Wayne Brown received under the old three-strikes law? Probably not; however, Bush is responsible for not commuting Billy Wayne's life sentence to a sentence that more justly reflects the crime he was convicted of and Bush is certainly responsible for Billy Wayne's having languished for three years after having been revoked for a technical parole violation over a crime which he was not guilty of. Under George Bush, the justice system in Texas is criminal. So much for compassion in conservatives.

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