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Sentenced as teens, Texas inmates seek second chance after decades in 'bowels of hell'
Fort Worth Star-Telegram - 12/1/2020
Dec. 1--FORT WORTH -- There are 663 Texans serving prison sentences of at least 40 years for crimes they committed as teenagers during the state's tough-on-crime era of the 1990s.
Angie Auldridge sank into the couch when she was asked what her son was like. What kind of man had he become over the last 20-something years?
She opened her mouth a couple of times but didn't say anything as she mulled her answer.
"Boy, well, I really don't know him to be honest," she finally said. "I go see him every month and we get a two-hour visit. ... Me and him figured out the other day that we actually have only spent one month of our lives together over the last 23 years."
The last time she really knew her son, James Aaron Dyson was a quick-witted 17-year-old whose major concern was impressing the girls at school. After school, he worked at a Pizza Hut in North Richland Hills, where his manager said he was courteous and polite. He was popular, but struggled with some learning disabilities, resulting low self-esteem.
But, on May 27, 1997, that teenager made a rash decision that haunts him and his family almost 25 years later. Earlier that year, his best friend, Omar Alvarado, 17, was murdered by a man named Joe Cruz during a fight over a girl. After a party one night, Alvarado and a friend threatened Cruz and stabbed him with a screwdriver. Cruz, 19, shot back.
Consumed by anger and depression, Dyson (who had newspaper clippings of stories about his friend's murder taped to his bedroom wall) took matters into his own hands when he confronted Cruz outside the Tarrant County courthouse after a hearing.
Cruz laughed at him.
"You need to get over it," Cruz said, according to Auldridge. "Your friend's dead."
Those words made Dyson forget everything.
He forgot that he was close to his 18th birthday. That he would soon graduate from high school. That he wanted to find a good woman to marry. That he wanted to have a family.
He wasn't thinking about any of it when he raised a gun and fired it at Cruz, hitting him in the back.
Eight months later, a jury sentenced him to 50 years in prison, 20 years more than Cruz got for murder.
Dyson, 40, is among the 663 Texans serving prison sentences of at least 40 years for crimes they committed as teenagers during the state's tough-on-crime era of the 1990s.
Their cases are an example of the systemic problems in the criminal justice system that date to Dyson's childhood, according advocates for criminal justice reform.
The Tarrant County District Attorney's Office found that Dyson was sentenced too harshly and asked Gov. Greg Abbott in August to release Dyson on time served. Months later, he waits in prison for that day to come.
Dyson's charge was enhanced because prosecutors assumed that he was a member of the Fort Worth gang R-13. Dyson has maintained for 23 years that he wasn't in a gang nor was the shooting gang-related.
After his conviction, a founding member of R-13 told the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office in a letter that Dyson was not a member and that he couldn't be because he's white.
"Dyson does not meet with us about the business of our organization and he does not do any 'jobs' for the organization," the man wrote. "He has never been through initiation and has never been 'put in.'"
Dyson's request for a new trial was denied in 1999.
Sixty-three teenagers sentenced in Tarrant County during that era are still in prison. They're known as "second-lookers" because advocates believe they deserve a second look from the parole board.
John Glasco, 42, was given a life sentence on two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He was 16.
Dandra Moore, 44, was sentenced to life in prison for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Reginald Harris, 38, was sentenced to 99 years in prison for aggravated assault and engaging in criminal activity, a charge often given to offenders suspected to have gang ties in order to give them a lengthier sentence.
Dyson's projected release date is in 2048. He's up for parole in three years but even as a "perfect prisoner," the chances of the board approving release is always low, experts say. He was already denied in 2003 for a "major discipline infraction" when he was found to be in possession of contraband in 2000. It's the only disciplinary action against Dyson.
Lengthy punishments were a result of a "superpredator" theory that was developed in the early 1990s by John Dilulio, who was a political scientist at Princeton University at the time, according to Shauna Reyes, a board member of Second Look Texas.
The advocacy group is trying for a third time to pass reform that would allow people like Dyson to have their cases reevaluated after they serve 20 years or half of their sentence, whichever is shorter. It would also allow the parole board to consider their age when the crime was committed. Many other states, including California, Louisiana, Washington, North Dakota and Florida, already have first parole set at 25 years or less for minors.
The superpredator theory predicted that juvenile crime in the U.S. would triple by 2010 and that 270,000 young predators would be on the streets if they weren't arrested.
"He said they were going to be these horrible criminals that there would be blood in the streets," Reyes said. "I mean he just oversensationalized a child. So when people heard that, when our legislators, senators and representatives heard that, the 1994 Crime Act was done. It was horrific."
DeAnna Luprete, the executive director of Second Look Texas, said it's unforgivable to accept the sentences handed out by Tarrant County juries, especially when you consider what the county was like in the 1990s.
In 1995, Tarrant County was more rural, with a population of 1.2 million, a little more than half the size it is today. There were 108 murders that year. Dilulio's theory was later proven false after data suggested that adults, not teenagers, were responsible for the increase of crime rates in the 1990s, but Reyes said leaders never stepped up to say they were wrong, or reverse their actions of the harsh sentences.
Now, people like Aarson Dyson, who grew up in the prison system, are fighting to go in front of the parole board earlier than the law allows.
Life for robbery
John Glasco was a quiet but adventurous teenager growing up in Fort Worth. He had a girlfriend and paid attention in school but didn't think much about his future. He lacked the guidance needed to set a lost teenager down the right path.
He lived maybe too much in the moment.
"I had no goals as a kid," he wrote in a letter dated Nov. 11. "I lived in each day for that day. I only cared about my family and my friends. Anything else was out of my reach. I had no one feeding me ideas for the future. I had no thoughts about one day having children of my own and providing for them as a father. I was a total kid."
Glasco, a 16-year-old goofball with bad impulse control, made a couple of terrible decisions in August of 1995. He and his friends got a hold of a gun from his girlfriend's mom. Glasco said it was "time to get silly" as they sat in a parking lot. They weren't robbers, he said. They were stoners and he was a practical joker.
He robbed the first person who pulled in next to them. It was an older woman who threw her purse through the window when he saw him walk up with a gun. Glasco got $200.
A week later, in the same lot, Glasco thought he'd goof around and scare someone else. He was with his little brother's 14-year-old classmate. A truck pulled up next to their car and Glasco jumped out with the gun, he wrote.
"All I intended to do was scare whoever and dash back to the car," he wrote. But the situation escalated when the younger boy tried to jump in the passenger seat of the truck.
Glasco stuck his hand through the driver's window. The woman grabbed Glasco's hand, slammed on the accelerator and the gun Glasco was holding went off. The bullet went into her leg above the knee.
She testified that Glasco didn't take anything from her and that the gun unintentionally discharged when she tried to drive off, Glasco wrote. The first woman he robbed didn't show up to his trial.
He was sentenced to life in prison.
"Knowing the threat that looms over the average grown man in these hostile prisons, how could one pass judgment over a child and have him do a life-sentence, trying to figure out life and himself in this kind of environment?" he wrote.
His older brother, Charles Glasco, served seven years for a shooting that happened in 1993. Charles Glasco was 18 when he was convicted.
"That's what I don't get," Charles said as he prepped Thanksgiving dinner. "I did a similar crime, was older and was locked up seven and a half years. How does he get life in prison? It makes me feel terrible. I feel like I started the whole deal."
Charles has been out of prison for more than 20 years. He celebrates his freedom every day and hasn't been in trouble since. It's proof, he said, that impulsive teenagers change when they become adults.
"I'm married with kids now," he said, smiling. "John will miss out on some of these things. He probably won't have kids."
Asked what it would be like to see his brother released, Charles took a minute to gain his composure.
"I haven't seen my brother since 1993," he said. "I was locked up and he was 14 years old. To see him out, it'd be, I don't know. What's bigger than a blessing?"
Like Dyson, John Glasco grew up in prison and was molded into a man who is hopeful for a future of freedom.
"Manhood didn't come upon me until I was behind bars listening to the ruined lives of actual men ... instead of planning a bright future for myself, I was mourning a future that would never play out in a way that would best serve me and my family," Glasco wrote. "That's what this sentence caused me to miss out on ... a future."
He's eligible for parole for the first time in 2025, but Luprete said most kids sentenced to life rarely get out. And, the life expectancy for a prisoner incarcerated since they were a teenager is 55, she said.
Growing up in prison
Dyson was the second youngest inmate in the Ferguson Unit in Huntsville when he arrived at prison.
"In those days, Ferguson was considered the gladiator farm," Dyson wrote in a letter on Nov. 1. "Arguably the worst prison in Texas, Ferguson housed hordes of gang members and was a place where nightmares turned into fruition."
He grew up in Ferguson and transferred after 16 years, when he was in his 30s.
"If there ever was a hell on earth, Ferguson sat in its bowels," he wrote. "It is odd to admit but I feel blessed for those years of hardship because it helped mold me into the man I am today."
In 23 years, Dyson received his high school diploma, got an associate's degree from Trinity Valley Community College in small business management and got vocational training in five concentrations. He's received more than a dozen certifications that would help prepare him for work after prison. He's taken classes in substance abuse education and anger management.
Because of the length of his sentence, Glasco said he had to wait 10 years before he was able to go to school. In 2006, he was placed in a GED class. College classes were first made available to people who were parole eligible in five to 10 years. When Glasco was able to take them, they were too expensive.
Both men also grew emotionally behind bars. The majority of second-lookers stick to themselves, Luprete said. Both men said they're not the same people they were when they were 16 and 17.
"These people were not career criminals," Glasco said about his fellow second-lookers. "Most are first-time offenders who, like myself, made unintelligent, immature, irrational and peer-pressured decisions. Although mistakes cannot be erased, children can at least grow out and away from bad choices. ... As an adult, I can not imagine exposing myself to, or even associating myself with armed robbers and drug-dealers."
The recidivism rate for second-lookers in Texas is zero, Reyes, of Second Look Texas said.
"They don't re-offend, they do not want to go back," Reyes said. "If you were raised in TDCJ, you don't want to go back. But we don't want anybody to get to the point where with a loss of hope or frustration or lack of success, they end up falling back and end up back there that's not going to happen on our watch, I guarantee you it's not gonna happen."
Hope for Dyson
Auldridge expected to have dinner with her son on that May day in 1997. But Dyson walked down the stairs that evening and told his parents he was going to a friend's house and he'd stay the night there.
At around 10 p.m, Auldridge and her now ex-husband, Dyson's father, got ready for bed and turned on the news.
"They said there was a shooting downtown Fort Worth," Auldridge said. "And the boy's name they were looking for was Jason Dyson. They called him Jason. And I looked at my husband, and I said, 'Oh, my gosh.'"
Despite the name mix-up, Auldridge knew her son was responsible.
"Joe Cruz was down there for a hearing that day," she said. "I asked him later why he left that night and he said the reason was he didn't want the cops to show up to our house. They never showed up. They never bothered to call us. This boy is 17 and we never even got a call."
The next day, they began their fight to keep their son out of lockup. When the sentenced was handed up, both Auldridge and her husband were absent from the courtroom.
It's a blessing, she said. She couldn't have handled watching her youngest son get sent away for 50 years.
They and Dyson kept fighting for his release.
"When you are innocent of something, you find yourself desperate and want nothing more than for people to believe you," Dyson wrote. "You hunger for vindication like your hunger for air."
Soon, they might have dinner together for the first time in decades.
Dyson's vindication came in August when the Tarrant County District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit found he was not involved in a gang and therefore was sentenced too harshly.
State District Judge Mike Thomas, Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney Sharen Wilson and Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn signed a letter to the TexasBoard of Pardons and Paroles asking it to reduce his sentence.
Auldridge was overjoyed when the decision was made, but now she and Dyson must wait for Abbott to approve the reduction. It's been three months and she's nervous Abbott might not signed off.
She said she's thankful that the DA's office reviewed her son's case and found that he was truthful about his gang ties. She hopes similar steps can be taken to release other Tarrant County second-lookers.
Steven W. Conder, of the Conviction Integrity Unit, said members of the unit look for cases to review where the defendant is making a claim of innocence with their office or claiming that there was a systemic due process violation. Most of the time the defendant or an advocate for them must contact the unit to get a case looked at.
"Aaron Dyson's case was a little bit unique because he wasn't really claiming that the actual conduct that he committed, that he didn't do it, he was claiming that he was overcharged on the facts of the case," Conder said.
Auldridge hopes she can hold her son again in time for Christmas. And Glasco just hopes he can get paroled in time to watch his nephews become men.
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