Gov. Rick Perry granted a conditional pardon Friday to Tyrone Brown, a prisoner from Dallas whose extreme punishment has become symbolic of the ills of the Texas criminal justice system.
Mr. Brown sentenced to life as a teenager 17 years ago after smoking marijuana while on probation isn't getting the simple commutation recommended by Dallas County officials and the Texas parole board. Instead, he must report indefinitely to a parole officer and meet other conditions or risk going back to prison.
Harry Whittington, a confidant of two prior Republican governors, praised Mr. Perry for freeing the prisoner. He linked the situation to recent DNA exonerations in Dallas County and the state's burgeoning youth-prison abuse scandal.
"As Texans learn about these sickening cases," he said, "they will be demanding an overhaul of the system that allows such flagrant miscarriages of justice to occur."
But Mr. Whittington, an Austin lawyer who previously served on the board overseeing the state's adult prisons, also sounded a somber note.
"From my 27 years' experience in state government, I have learned that decency and morality are not very high priorities in administering criminal justice," he said. "There is not much respect for the dignity and sanctity of human life."
Judge Keith Dean initially put Mr. Brown on probation in 1990, when he took part in an armed robbery in which no one was hurt. One positive drug test led to the life term in prison.
Last spring, in a story that attracted national attention, The Dallas Morning News contrasted Mr. Brown's case with that of a well-connected murderer whom Judge Dean put on probation. The killer, John Alexander Wood, repeatedly tested positive for cocaine and committed other violations, yet avoided prison. He even got permission to quit reporting to a probation officer and quit taking drug tests.
Neither man had a prior criminal record. The judge, who was voted out of office in November, has refused to explain his actions.
"It's almost unbelievable," said state Rep. Helen Giddings, a Dallas Democrat who was among several legislators pressing the governor to free Mr. Brown. "It is unbelievable."
Mr. Brown is expected to be released from prison next week, although no date has been set. In addition to reporting to a parole officer, he must live with his mother, find a job and work with a therapist. It's unclear how long he'll remain under supervision; the governor ordered parole officials to give him an annual report to be used in deciding that question.
None of that mattered Friday to Nora Brown, who's long been planning a party for her son.
"He's coming home!" she said before answering another in a long series of congratulatory phone calls, from politicians, ministers and friends. "Everybody's calling me now."
State lawmakers want to know how many more sentencing disparities need to be rectified, Ms. Giddings said.
"A lot of us are going to be taking a deeper look at this," Ms. Giddings said. "You have to wonder what else is under the surface."
The issues at stake go beyond justice and fairness, she added, because excessive sentences are "a drain on the taxpayers."
Texas prisons, after a major expansion in the 1990s, are full, and legislators are currently debating whether to build more. A bipartisan group of politicians is resisting expansion, calling for greater focus on prevention and rehabilitation.
Dallas County's new district attorney, Craig Watkins, has stressed these same goals as part of his "smart on crime" philosophy. He's also positioned himself as someone who's willing to undo the mistakes of the past he recently agreed to an unprecedented outside review of applications for post-conviction DNA testing.
"Our criminal justice system in Texas is on trial right now," Mr. Watkins said.
Sentencing disparities are part of the problem, he said, but "how are we going to sift through all the cases?
"I wish I did have the resources to do that. We just don't," he added. "Let's go forward and make sure that it doesn't happen again."
Mr. Watkins said the judge in the Brown and Wood cases should not be singled out for criticism.
"We're all to blame for it because we let it happen," he said. "The judge was elected. He pretty much followed what the electorate wanted him to do.
"Fortunately, we've matured, I believe," said Mr. Watkins, the county's first black district attorney. "I wouldn't be here if we hadn't."
Mr. Dean now works as a defense lawyer in Dallas with Frederick "Rick" Russell, the attorney who prepared Mr. Brown's commutation paperwork.
Shortly before leaving office, Mr. Dean recommended cutting Mr. Brown's sentence. So did outgoing District Attorney Bill Hill.
The parole board concurred last month, in a 5-2 vote, and sent the matter to the governor for a final decision.
Board chair Rissie Owens, who sided with the majority, cautioned against viewing Mr. Brown as a symbol of larger problems. "It's really hard to compare one case to another," she said.
Ms. Owens said the two "no" votes came from colleagues who were concerned about Mr. Brown's behavior in prison. He failed to finish his high school education, fought with guards and joined a gang before cleaning up his act in recent years.
The governor's appreciation of those concerns led him to reject commutation in favor of a conditional pardon, spokesman Ted Royer said. Mr. Perry, he said, felt Mr. Brown would need supervision "to assist in his reintegration."
Mr. Brown attracted supporters nationwide after ABC-TV's 20/20 news program highlighted The News' coverage of the two cases.
One, Andrew Linberg, a psychiatric social worker in Massachusetts who is experienced in helping prisoners re-enter society, will be Mr. Brown's long-distance therapist.
Mr. Linberg said that after learning of Mr. Brown's case, "I just lost my mind. I said, 'This is just so wrong.' "
Another out-of-state advocate was Charlie Douglas, a Florida lawyer who helped set up a Web site to press Mr. Brown's cause.
"Although I had hoped for a complete commutation, I am not disappointed with a conditional pardon because Tyrone will be leaving prison and coming home," Mr. Douglas said. "I have no doubt that Tyrone will be an upstanding citizen of Dallas, and he will contribute to the community that has given him so much."
In all, more than 800 people around the country contacted the governor's office in favor of commutation. No one wrote or called in opposition, Mr. Royer said.
Much of the support came from outside the Dallas area. Former Dallas NAACP president Bob Lydia, who worked behind the scenes for months on Mr. Brown's behalf, said that was because "a lot of people here have allegiances to Judge Dean."
Mr. Perry previously had rejected most other commutation recommendations made by the board. One commutation he granted, over the protest of a robbery victim, ended badly - the freed prisoner later got arrested on drug charges and is back in prison.
The Brown case, however, came with strong support from the victim.
"I think he's done his time," said Bill Hathaway, whom Mr. Brown robbed of $2. "I have nothing against him."
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