This Boy’s Life
At 16, Taurus Buchanan threw one deadly punch—and was sent away for life. Will the Supreme Court give him, and hundreds like him, a chance at freedom?
T ony Clayton was 30 years old, and just two years out from passing the Louisiana bar, when he walked into court in February of 1994, prepared to try his first murder case. He was, in his words, a “braggadocious kind of little young jit,” determined to prove himself with a case that would test even the most veteran of prosecutors.
The defendant, Taurus Buchanan, stood charged with second-degree murder—accused of throwing, at the age of 16, a single, deadly punch in a street fight among kids. If convicted, an automatic sentence would fate him to spend the rest of his life in prison, with no hope for parole. A section chief in the East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office had told Clayton that securing a murder conviction under these circumstances would be a tough task. But Clayton had told her, “Ah, man, I can convict. I can do it. Just give me the damn case.”
Clayton, who is African American, says he had been hired by the district attorney’s office in part because of his ability to connect with black jurors. He became so good in the courtroom he could inspire profane awe. “If Tony Clayton told jurors to eat shit out of his hand, they would do it,” one court clerk told us. To Clayton, a prosecutor was akin to a projectionist in an old movie theater. “That guy where the light’s coming from, he’s projecting an image on the screen. And that’s me. I’m projecting to those jurors how I want them to view my case.”
On the opening day of the trial, Clayton told the jury pool that young as Taurus was, a murder conviction would send him away, never again to be free. “Does that bother you at all to determine the fate of this young man?” Clayton asked a 19-year-old woman. “No, it doesn’t,” she said. “What about you?” Clayton asked another woman. “No, it wouldn’t,” she said.
Taurus Buchanan stood trial in the era of the “superpredator,” the label applied to violent juveniles in the mid-1990s, when states and the federal government passed one tough-on-crime law after another. Today, two decades later, a trio of rulings from the US Supreme Court has peeled back some of those laws, recognizing the folly of assigning equal culpability to adults and kids. In October, the court heard arguments in a fourth case, and how that ruling comes down could determine what happens to hundreds of lifers sent to prison when they were kids.
O n a Thursday morning in July of 1993, Taurus Buchanan was getting ready for an evening flight. He ironed, folded, and packed his dress clothes, including a pair of olive-green pants and a green and black button-down shirt. Taurus and his father, Elton Mitchell, were heading out for a summer tour.
Mitchell played electronic keyboard with Willie Neal Johnson and the New Keynotes, a gospel band with upcoming concert dates in New York and the Midwest. Johnson had agreed to let Taurus tag along, and some of the more experienced musicians were going to help Taurus develop his drumming skills.
It was Taurus’ mother, Everlena Buchanan Lee, who’d bought him a drum set when he was little, and he kept the beat for the choir at Community Bible Baptist Church. (“I wasn’t that good,” he laughs now. “But nobody said it, because it was about God. It wasn’t about whether I was good or not. It was about making a joyful noise unto the Lord.”)
Buchanan Lee dated Mitchell in middle school and high school, and Taurus was born when she was 15. She’d eventually marry another man, and Taurus would live at his grandmother’s house on East Baton Rouge’s Kaufman Street. By the time Taurus was in middle school, Buchanan Lee says, her life had fallen into “Do my work, come back home, get a beating, get high, go to work, come back home.” When Taurus was 14, she was charged in connection with an armed robbery after her husband held up a Circle K. Buchanan Lee pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact, and ended up with a suspended sentence and probation. Then she got divorced, and got clean. Taurus insisted she get a house close to him, on his street.
The night before Taurus’ trip, Buchanan Lee had wanted him to sleep at his father’s, but Taurus refused. Because of his mother’s past, and the rough neighborhood, Taurus, a muscular 150 pounds, had cast himself as the family protector, quick to use his fists. “If you stood in front of his mom’s house or his grandmother’s house and sold drugs, you had a fight on your hands,” Buchanan Lee says.
“We always had fights,” Taurus explains now. “Whatever school I went to, you was gonna fight…They were gonna push you, they were gonna bump you.” It could be you were different, he says, or not from the area, or were talking to a girl someone else wanted to talk to. Fighting had its own language—crowding, wilding, getting into the mix—and its own rituals. “Before every fight,” he says, “people would tie up their shoelaces and tighten their sneakers.”
When some kids from a rival neighborhood started getting guns, Taurus figured he’d better do the same, so he paid a junkie $10 for a gun with no firing pin. When Taurus got caught with it, the school contacted police, who released him to his family. He says a juvenile judge gave him probation. He now says that if he had spent some time locked up for any of it, even a night, “that would have gotten my mind right.”
As Taurus packed, his cousins Mario Hutton and Colin Knox were in his living room watching television. Mario was 12, Colin, 15; the three were inseparable. “You saw me, you saw them,” Taurus says. After a while, Mario and Colin wandered out and headed up the street. Soon enough, Taurus followed.
T hat same morning, about a mile away, on the other side of Scenic Highway, Jacques Brown finished a bowl of Frosted Flakes, then told his mom he was heading out to pick up work cutting a lawn. Jacques was one of eight kids in a family that didn’t have much except “a lot of love,” says his mother, Janice Brown. He hopped on a bicycle with a friend.
Jacques was 12 but, according to his aunt Joann Phillips, “looked like he was just 9 or 10. Jacques was skinny, skinny, skinny, nothing but bones.” He was a good kid, she said. The Sunday before, when his family couldn’t take him to church, he knocked on neighbors’ doors until he found a ride.
The two friends crossed the highway, a north-south thoroughfare that to some in Baton Rouge served as a neighborhood boundary. As morning turned to afternoon, they made their way along Kaufman Street. That’s when Colin Knox saw Jacques—and began tying up his shoelaces.
That year, Jacques and Colin had been in the fifth grade at the same elementary school, but had different teachers. The local kids often fought over turf: whose teacher was better, what side of the highway you belonged on. On the last day of school, Jacques and Colin got into it.
Now, on Kaufman Street, the insults moved from the stuff of playgrounds—“You look like a frog”—to more dangerous ground. “He called me a punk pussy-assed nigger, then I got mad and I called him a punk pussy-assed nigger back,” Colin would later tell police.
Colin threw the first punch, and didn’t let up. Mario joined in, neighbors looking on. Then Taurus waded in and landed one blow. Jacques crumpled, and never got up.
Accounts would vary on whether other kids in the neighborhood then piled on, beating Jacques while down. But it soon became clear how badly he was hurt. “I poured water on Jacques’ face, on his forehead, trying to wake him up,” Taurus says. “I was like, ‘Wake up, Jacques,’” but the boy’s eyes rolled back. He saw some blood in Jacques’ mouth, heard gurgling noises, and saw his body stiffen.
An ambulance took Jacques to the hospital; the cops picked up Taurus, Mario, and Colin. In the police car, Mario began to cry and Taurus wiped his tears. At the station, a policeman handcuffed Taurus to a bar on the wall. When officers unchained him to photograph the knuckles of his right hand, Taurus was shaking so forcefully that an officer had to hold his hand still. He was in an interview room with his mother when a detective walked in with news: Jacques Brown was dead.
Taurus and his cousins were booked and taken to juvenile detention, where they were sprayed for lice and given green prison uniforms. Mario told Taurus he was scared. “Man, I’m scared too,” Taurus responded.
I n 1994, the year Taurus Buchanan stood trial, a Chicago gang member named Robert “Yummy” Sandifer—11 years old, 4-foot-6, with a stunningly long criminal record—became a suspect in the shooting death of another child, 14-year-old Shavon Dean. As police searched for Robert, two other gang members—brothers, ages 16 and 14—took the 11-year-old to an underpass and murdered him.
Robert’s story made the cover of Time, and other stories of youth violence mounted. Beyond the anecdotes, some researchers dug into numbers—looking at demographics and spiking crime rates—and claimed that the worst was yet to come.
In January 1996, a Newsweek headline summed up the nation’s fears: “Superpredators Arrive: Should We Cage the New Breed of Vicious Kids?” At the forefront of the lock-’em-up movement was John DiIulio Jr., then a political scientist at Princeton. He foresaw a “ticking crime bomb” of tens of thousands of violent young thugs “on the horizon,” “morally impoverished” kids for whom murder and rape came naturally.
“Let the government Leviathan lock them up and, when prudence dictates, throw away the key,” wrote DiIulio in an academic journal; he saw little chance for youths to be rehabilitated “once they have crossed the prison gates.”
Legislators heeded the call. Between 1992 and 1999, 49 states and the District of Columbia made it easier to try juveniles as adults. Some states removed consideration of youth altogether, replacing discretion with compulsory triggers. By 2012, there were 28 states across the nation that were handing out mandatory life-without-parole sentences to juveniles.
One was Louisiana, where Taurus exemplified how mandatory sentencing could render a defendant’s youth meaningless. Once he was charged with second-degree murder, Taurus was automatically tried as an adult because he was over the age of 14. If convicted, he would automatically be sentenced to life without parole.
By 2015, more than 2,230 people in the United States were serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles, according to data1 compiled by the Phillips Black Project, a nonprofit law practice that collected information on all 50 states. In 2007, the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law organization based in Alabama, found that there were 73 cases in which kids were sent away for crimes they committed at age 13 or 14. One was sentenced to life for kidnapping, another for sexual battery, another for taking part in a robbery in which someone was shot but survived.
The Phillips Black data shows that, with 376, Pennsylvania currently has the most people serving juvenile life sentences. But Louisiana has a higher number of such inmates per capita than any other state. Of the 247 inmates in Louisiana, 199 are African American. In East Baton Rouge Parish, where Taurus stood trial, the racial disparity is even starker: Almost half of the parish population is white, but 32 of the 33 serving juvenile life-without-parole sentences are black.
|1||Philadelphia County, Pa.||214|
|2||Wayne County, Mich.||154|
|3||Los Angeles County, Calif.||112|
|4||Cook County, Ill.||65|
|5||Orleans Parish, La.||60|
|6||Oakland County, Mich.||50|
|7||St. Louis city, Mo.||41|
|8||Allegheny County, Pa.||34|
|9||East Baton Rouge Parish, La.||33|
|10||Jefferson Parish, La.||30|