Finding Justice When Immature Minds Commit Murder

Dan Zegart
Jul 6 · 5 min read

The road to Death Row Texas frequently starts with a stupid but lethal act by a teen or early twenty-something — physically an adult, but with the judgement and emotional maturity of a child.

Billy Joe Wardlow, who fatally shot an east Texas rancher in 1993 while stealing his truck, was one of those teens. And on July 8th, a few months before his 46th birthday, he is to die for it on the cross-shaped gurney in the room with the military green walls at the Huntsville Unit, where Texas carries out its lethal injections.

That is, unless the Supreme Court agrees with Wardlow’s lawyers who are urging the Court to accept brain imaging-based science concluding that the brains of 18 to 20-year-olds remain child-like in their inability to control aggression and impulsivity — and therefore to vacate Billy Wardlow’s death sentence as unconstitutional under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Billy Wardlow holds hands with fiancé Danielle Allen. Photo credit: Danielle Allen.
Billy Wardlow holds hands with fiancé Danielle Allen. Photo credit: Danielle Allen.
Billy Wardlow with fiancé Danielle Allen. Photo credit: Danielle Allen.

I met Billy Wardlow almost 20 years ago as a reporter trying to understand who was winding up on Death Row in Texas and why Texas needed so many executions, then taking place at the rate of as many as four a month. I looked deeply into Billy’s case, interviewing his parents, his brother, friends, the victim’s son. I learned Billy grew up poor, beaten and terrorized by a domineering mother who isolated him from other children.

In June 1993, an eighteen-year-old Billy and his girlfriend decided they needed a truck to disappear into Montana and a new life. Wardlow tried to force his way into neighbor Carl Cole’s house at gunpoint to steal his new pick-up, but though elderly and much smaller, Cole surprised Billy by fighting back and in the struggle, Wardlow shot him.

After his arrest, Billy tried three times to commit suicide in the county jail. The sheriff, a family friend of the Wardlows, told me he suggested Billy write down what happened with Cole to help release his anguish. Billy did — and his “confession” letter went right into evidence. At trial, an inexperienced defense lawyer failed to enter evidence of Billy’s harsh background and was stymied by the prosecutor in corroborating Billy’s testimony that he shot Cole unintentionally. Despite the lack of any violent history, after an uncredentialed prosecution “expert” scared the jury into finding Wardlow would remain dangerous in the future, the jury voted for death.

Nevertheless, I was initially skeptical when I met Billy. I had decided to take nothing on faith about him, based on my mixed experiences as a reporter with other inmates.

The man I met in March 2001 was a tall, gangly, twenty-something who seemed like an overgrown kid. He was enthusiastic and warm, and very much in control of himself. He quickly took responsibility for what he had done. “I put myself here,” he told me flatly. When I returned home, he poured out his life story in letters, which morphed from research into a decades-long conversation about things that matter to each of us. He has acknowledged his guilt and frequently expressed a deep remorse for the Cole family and for his own mother and father, who had to live with what he’d done.

And so I’ve been a witness to the rather extraordinary person that Billy Wardlow matured into over almost 20 years. And despite the limited social access of a Death Row prisoner, Billy Wardlow has managed to impress many people inside and outside the prison, including some 50 pen pals around the world.

Death Row inmates I contacted by letter described Billy as intelligent and generous. He first became known on the Row as a mechanical wizard who taught himself how to repair inmate radios, fans, typewriters and nightlights and asked nothing in return. He even trained others how to make these repairs.

Several Death Row inmates, among them Troy Kunkle and Donell Jackson, both long since executed, wrote that Billy sacrificed his own welfare to protect others and was brilliant at redirecting male energy away from destructive pathways. He was by all accounts a quiet leader, who, in one memorable incident in 1998, prevented a brawl between Death Row inmates and guards when the guards accused the inmates of refusing an order to leave the recreation area.

In another incident, Wardlow was disciplined and deprived of privileges after he objected to a guard who allegedly served the inmates in his section only half of their dinner ration, eating the rest himself. It’s notable that these episodes took place when Billy was still in his early twenties.

But my favorite is how Billy taught several dozen of his fellow inmates how to play Dungeons and Dragons during a period of escalating tensions with a group of guards on the night shift in 1998.

“I ran them through this world I’d made, allowing them to encounter obstacles and have adventures. The point was, they had to learn how to work as a team to survive. If they didn’t, I made problems for them,” Billy wrote. After a week, the game had grown to the point where there were a couple of dozen condemned men shouting obscure commands and queries to Dungeonmaster Wardlow during marathon games that started at 9:30 PM and sometimes lasted all night.

“We forgot about all the static with the guards,” wrote Donell Jackson. “That anger and frustration just went away for a while. He had us all playing this weird game like kids.”

I came to trust Billy Wardlow so much that I encouraged my daughter, now 19, to write him, beginning in elementary school. She called him Uncle Billy. He made her wristbands and necklaces and scribbled smiley faces and drawings all over his letters. As she grew older, their letters became more frank. Like his other pen pals, me included, my daughter discovered that Billy was a soothing presence who offered pragmatic, useful advice.

Wardlow’s lawyers are asking the Supreme Court to throw out his death sentence and hold that Texans under 21 at the time of their crimes can’t be sentenced to death based on alleged future dangerousness, on which Texas law uniquely relies as the central criterion for the death penalty, although the law is so vague as to offer no real guidelines for its application. They cite studies employing magnetic resonance imaging showing the sections of the frontal lobe that control aggression and impulsive behavior are no more developed in 18, 19 and 20 year-olds than in 17-year-olds. Future dangerousness simply can’t be predicted for those under 21.

Such a finding would be consistent with a 2005 high court ruling based on the imaging research then available that convicted killers 17-years-old or younger at “time of crime” lacked the judgement of adults and could not be executed.

No matter what, next week, I will fly to Texas to see Billy Wardlow for the second time. Depending on what the court decides, it will either be a long overdue reunion — or to say goodbye.

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