What Really Happened To Rodeny Hulin?

Since his death, teenage inmate Rodney Hulin has become a national symbol of why it's wrong to send juveniles to adult prisons. His true story, though, paints a different kind of troubling picture.

While Rodney lingered in the Randall County jail, the juvenile court debated whether he should be certified as an adult. Under section 54 of the Texas Family Code, a social and psychological study of the suspect must be made. The judge considers the juvenile's previous history, whether the crime is against a person or property, whether it was done in an aggressive and premeditated manner and whether a grand jury would be likely to indict. The sophistication and maturity of the juvenile and his previous record are also taken into account, and the protection of public safety must be weighed along with the likelihood of rehabilitation. There is a good deal of room for interpretation under these rules, but Rodney Hulin could not have picked a worse political and judicial climate in which to commit his crime.

George W. Bush had been elected governor the previous year, in part by accusing incumbent Ann Richards of supporting lenient paroles. The Texas Legislature echoed the law-and-order talk, passing laws that strengthened the hand of prosecutors in certifying juveniles as adults. Bush's election helped sweep in Republican judges who were talking the same tough line, and who acted on it. In 1994, the Texas adult prison system received 177 juvenile offenders. In 1995, when Hulin was arrested, that number had grown to 502. The following year, the number approached a thousand. Miscreants as young as 14 can now be certified for capital crimes, and those who are 15 can be certified for first-degree felonies -- not that any of these laws were needed to certify Hulin, given how close he was to 17.

The prosecutor who ended up with Rodney Hulin's case doesn't remember him. "I would have seen him twice," says Randall County Assistant District Attorney Harry Ingram, "a short period when we did the transfer hearing in juvenile court, and then again for five minutes in court for the plea bargain."

"But I do recall [that] from his past history and all the reports we did make a decision that he was a dangerous person and he did not need to be free on the streets," Ingram adds. "His parents may have seen him as a first offender, because nobody was hurt ... But he was not some sweet, innocent kid we threw to the wolves."

After he was certified as an adult, Rodney fired his juvenile court lawyer, and in her place the court appointed Seldon Hale, an Amarillo criminal lawyer deeply familiar with the options that his client faced. Hale had served as chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, the board that governs the Texas prison system, under Ann Richards in 1992.

"He was not what I call a bad buy," says Hale. "If I had been a judge and had known about him, I would have kept him in the county jail, made him work in the jail and cut him loose after six months [nearly the amount of time Hulin served while awaiting sentencing]."

But Hulin's choices boiled down to two: plead guilty to two charges of second-degree arson and be sentenced to eight years with the possibility of parole in two years, or take boot camp and five years probation, with two 15-year sentences hanging over him if he messed up.

He had a tough choice, says Hale: "He would not have done well in boot camp because he was not an athletic type of kid. Deferred probation is a tough deal, because if you screw up on the last day of probation, the judge can give you the full range of your sentence."

Boot camp would have been the least of Rodney's difficulties. The real question seemed to be whether he could stay out of trouble for five years. Rodney himself didn't seem to think so. By the time he entered his plea at the end of July 1995, he had served almost six months with few problems, and that time would be subtracted from his sentence. That left 18 months until he would be eligible for parole.

He took the eight years. Hale thought it might be the best choice. "There are literally hundreds of young men like him in the prison system," Hale says. "He struck me as street-smart. He had a persona of Mickey Rooney. He had a kind of swagger. I never would have thought he would have killed himself."

From the Randall County jail Rodney was sent to the Middleton Unit in Abilene, a diagnostic or transfer unit, where inmates are held to be interviewed, tested and classified for transfer somewhere else in the prison system. While in the Randall County jail, he had continued to take his antidepressant medication. But at Middleton that was taken away from him and not re-prescribed. At the end of October, he wrote his mother that he was working on his high school equivalency diploma, and that if he passed, he hoped to take college courses in the next unit to which he was assigned. He was hoping for parole by the following August. He liked his teacher and attended classes for three hours every morning. His job was as a dorm porter, sweeping, mopping and cleaning sinks and windows.

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