Jon Buice was 17 years old when he and nine friends attacked three gay men outside a Montrose nightclub in 1991. He was 18 when he pled guilty to the murder of 27-year-old Paul Broussard, whom Buice stabbed twice in the stomach, and accepted a 45-year prison sentence, the harshest punishment for any of the so-called “Woodlands 10.”
At the age of 41, Buice was released from Huntsville's Walls Unit on Wednesday after being granted early release by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
The idea of granting Buice early release from prison has been deeply divisive since he was first paroled in 2011, only to have the decision revoked after public protest by Broussard's mother and others who still consider the murder a hate crime. At the time of murder, local gay-rights activists turned Broussard's death into a cause célèbre; Broussard's death helped make “gay-bashing” part of the national lexicon.
Iconic Houston gay-rights activist Ray Hill led the charge back then, igniting public action around the case. Just days after Broussard's murder, some 2,000 protesters stormed the intersection of Westheimer and Montrose, backing up traffic while chanting “queers fight back!” For his part, Hill made sure the case, and the phrase “gay-bashing,” was spotlighted in the media, pressuring police, prosecutors, and other public officials to treat the attack as a hate crime.
But Hill says he was wrong, and for years he's been fighting for Buice's early release. Last month, when officials first announced that the parole board had voted 2-0 to grant Buice parole, the Houston Chronicle's Lisa Gray explored the evolution of Hill's relationship to Buice and the case.
Once Buice was handed the hefty sentence Hill had pushed for, the two men had something in common: prison. Hill spent more than four years behind bars for tax evasion in the early 1970s, and when he got out quickly became a prisoners' rights advocate, launching his two-hour “Prison Show” program on KPFT. As Gray writes, Hill would ultimately connect with Buice on a personal level because of that radio show:
After the Woodlands 10 received their sentences, they stayed on Hill's mind— now, not as the enemy, but as that other set of his people. He knew first-hand the pitch of homophobia in Texas prisons, and he thought a lot about the hate that motivated hate crimes.
On "The Prison Show," he asked Buice to get in touch with him.
Buice did, and in April 1999, Hill read Buice's letter on the show. "The gay and lesbian community of Houston I owe a momentous apology," Buice wrote. "A repentance for an act of atrocity. The night of July 4th, 1991, haunts me every day. It has hurt me deep inside. I was involved in taking a man's life."
Hill began visiting the young man in prison and soon began to believe that Buice was not only repentant, but that the attack that killed Broussard was fueled not by homophobic rage but by dangerous mix of youth, stupidity, drugs and alcohol.
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Eventually, the man who declared Buice a gay-basher started giving him advice on how to survive prison and, perhaps most importantly, how to quickly make parole by being a model inmate. By 2006, Gray writes, Hill started working with an independent Canadian journalist named Alison Armstrong, who ultimately made a documentary about the case, The Guy with the Knife. According to Gray, the movie was even screened for Buice's parole board.
Not everyone has experienced such a change of heart. Broussard's mother Nancy Rodriguez has opposed Buice's parole and called for him to serve at least 27 years of his sentence, one year behind bars for every year her son lived. Last month, when Buice's parole was granted, Rodriguez told reporters, “In my heart I feel that he's going to hurt somebody else.” Andy Kahan, the city crime victims advocate who has fought for years to keep Buice behind bars, told the Chron on Wednesday, “the decision to release a cold-blooded murderer ...is sending chills down everyone's spine wondering if their case will be the next one to be paroled."
Likewise, the president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus has called Buice's release a “travesty of justice,” while Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson last month said Broussard's murder “clearly was a hate crime. …The decision of this board sends a terrible message in a time when these crimes seem to be flourishing."
Buice said little in front of reporters upon his release Wednesday, as the Chron notes. He's been released to Montgomery County, and has been ordered to wear a GPS monitor, find a job and stay out of Harris County.