Texas Monthly writer Skip Hollandsworth gives us this week's Sunday Long Read, the story of Edwin Debrow, who in 1991 killed a cab driver in San Antonio at age 12, and was tried under Texas's brutal juvenile law. Debrow has served 25 years of his 40 year sentence, has been denied parole ever since he reached adulthood, and has essentially spent his entire life in a maximum security facility.
Just after midnight on September 21, 1991, a San Antonio school teacher named Curtis Edwards was found sprawled across the front seat of a taxi that he drove part-time at night to earn extra money. He had been shot point-blank in the back of the head. It was a gruesome scene: blood and bits of brain were scattered throughout the car. A few days later, police announced they had made an arrest in the case. Edwards’s killer, they said, was a twelve-year-old boy named Edwin Debrow. Apparently, investigators said, Edwin had shot Edwards while attempting to rob him.
At the police department, a photographer from the San Antonio Express-News took a photo of Edwin as he was being escorted down a hallway by a uniformed officer and a detective. Edwin, who was just four feet eight inches tall and 79 pounds, was wearing a T-shirt, basketball shorts, and unlaced high-top tennis shoes. His face was peeking out of a suit coat that the detective had thrown over his head in hopes of protecting his identity.
Almost overnight, Edwin became one of Texas’s most notorious criminals. People were stunned that such a small child could have committed such a cold-blooded killing. A prosecutor for the Bexar County district attorney’s office called Edwin a “sick little monster.” In a speech addressing the problems of the inner city, President George H. W. Bush went so far as to single out Edwin, describing his behavior as “truly horrifying.”
Today, Edwin is 37 years old. He is five feet ten inches tall, and he weighs 170 pounds. He looks a little like the boxer Floyd Mayweather, and because of the exercises he does every day in his cell—endless numbers of push-ups, crunches, pull-ups, and leg lifts—he is built like him too, with broad shoulders, a tapered waist, and biceps the size of baseballs. His head is shaved, and his arms and chest are inked with tattoos. “When my mom comes to see me, she always says I still look young,” Edwin told me during one of our conversations. “But I know she’s only trying to make me feel better. I know I’ve got the prison look.”
“The prison look?” I asked.
He gave me a thin smile. “The look of someone who’s not going anywhere soon.”
Edwin has been behind bars since the day he was arrested: he is now more than halfway through a forty-year sentence that a juvenile court ordered him to serve as punishment for Edwards’s murder. Although he has been eligible for parole since 1999, the members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles have refused to release him, always citing the severity of his crime. If he continues to be denied parole, he will not be released until September 2031. He will be 52 years old.
For decades, the members of the criminal justice system have argued about what should be done with kids who commit violent crimes. Lawyers, judges, police officers, politicians, and victims’ rights advocates have debated whether lawbreaking youngsters should be treated as regular criminals or as misguided delinquents with potential for rehabilitation. Is the public better served by putting them in adult prisons and keeping them off the streets for years and years? Or does the experience of incarceration only make them more disturbed and even more dangerous?
In Texas the law allows for very strict punishment of juvenile offenders. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, of the 140,000 inmates now housed in its prisons, approximately 2,000 are there for crimes that they committed as juveniles, which state law defines as anyone under the age of seventeen. Nearly a hundred of those inmates committed their crimes when they were only eleven, twelve, or thirteen years old. Of that group, only two have served more time than Edwin. “I’m considered the bad seed, the worst of the worst, all because of one stupid, terrible thing I did when I was twelve,” he told me.
He took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “Why can’t people understand I’m not that twelve-year-old boy anymore? Why can’t I be given a second chance?”
Edwin Debrow did kill when he was twelve, but throwing a child in prison like this is unconscionable. For him to still be in prison now is repugnant. And yet odds are very good he will serve his sentence and have nothing waiting for him on the outside, no skills, no hopes of getting a job, no place to go. He'll be a 52-year-old black man in Texas after serving 40 years in prison.
The death penalty would have been a kindness.