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Texas Death Row Gains 5 Teens Guilty of Brutal Murders : Crime: Two girls who took a shortcut across a field to get home before curfew became victims of young toughs who had gathered for a night of boozing and brawling.

October 02, 1994|MICHAEL GRACZYK | ASSOCIATED PRESS

HOUSTON — What was intended to be a night of rough-and-tumble boozing and brawling, a routine gang initiation in a field beside a Texas bayou, took a ghastly twist when two teen-age girls wandered too near the young toughs.

Both were raped, viciously beaten, then strangled with shoe laces and a belt.

In September, just 15 months after the crime, three of the youths were convicted of capital murder, joining two fellow gang members--none yet 20 years old--on the path to Texas' crowded Death Row.

All five await death by lethal injection, punishment meted out by a citizenry "fed up with the expense of crime, the fear of crime, the devastation of crime, and just the senseless nature of it," said Billy Bramlett, a juvenile delinquency expert and professor at Sam Houston State University.

Corrections experts say they can't recall a similar case where so many people have been condemned to death for a single crime.

Peter Anthony Cantu and Derrick Sean O'Brien, both 19, were convicted earlier this year. Last month, in separate trials, jurors convicted Efrain Perez, 18, Raul Villarreal, 18, and Joe Medillin, 19, increasing the number of inmates in the nation's most populous Death Row to almost 400.

A sixth member of their loose-knit "Black and White" gang, a juvenile ineligible for the death penalty under Texas law, was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

On the evening of June 24, 1993, gang members gathered along a railroad trestle over a bayou to drink and initiate Villarreal by making him fight each of the other gang members.

About 11:30 p.m., shortly after the fighting stopped, Jennifer Ertman, 14, and Elizabeth Pena, 16, took a shortcut through the field, trying to get home from a party by their curfews.

Their path took them past the gang, who grabbed the girls and took turns raping them before beating them, strangling them and stomping on their necks. The girls' battered bodies were found four days later.

"I think there's no question the jury was upset about the conduct," said Harris County District Attorney John Holmes. "I think everybody who knew anything about what happened out there was outraged by it. . . .

"We know how to deal with those people," Holmes said. "I think you've just seen an example of that."

When one youth was arrested, he snarled obscenities at camera crews and tried to kick reporters as police hauled him away. Testimony at the trials showed the youths divided $40 and some jewelry taken from the girls, then bragged about what they did.

"I think they are more or less oblivious," said Robert Lineberry, an urban crime historian at the University of Houston. "From their point of view, life is of little value. Our logic toward the criminal justice system is people are rational, but I think you're dealing with a crowd of people who are not rational by the standards of the criminal justice system."

"Those five young men were simply looking for an identity and proving their manhood and that's all it takes," Bramlett said. "Violence is a very powerful and effective way to get attention."

The ages of new Death Row inmates in Texas are getting younger and younger, officials say.

"That's my feeling, from what I see coming in here," said David Nunnelee, a spokesman for the state Department of Criminal Justice.

Of the 393 inmates on Death Row in late September, 12 committed murder at age 17, 21 at age 18, and 30 at age 19.

Among all felonies nationwide, statistics show the most common age of arrest is 16, Lineberry said. The second most common: 15.

"The composition of crime is changing," he said. "You've got 11-year-old kids or 14-year-old kids committing crime sprees that we would in hitherto (have) thought were only done by sort of deranged adults.

"In the past, teen-agers tended to at worst knock off the 7-Eleven store. These days, teen-agers knock off the store and murder the manager at the same time. That was almost unheard of 20 or 30 or 50 years ago."

Longtime Texas Death Row inmates have even remarked on their new neighbors.

"When I got here I knew almost everyone," murderer Robert Drew said in an interview in August, a week before his execution. "Now there's so many people. And they're so young and cocky."

Drew was 24 when he was sentenced to die; he spent nearly a dozen years on Death Row before his punishment was carried out.

It's likely the five teen-agers convicted of the Ertman-Pena murders will face a similar stretch in Death Row cells as their cases are appealed. The average condemned inmate from Harris County has spent more than 10 years in prison before facing the executioner.

Sociologists say that's part of the problem.

"Evidence in criminology is there are deterrent effects in swiftness of punishment but not severity of punishment," Lineberry said. "If you're not relatively expeditious in carrying out punishment, it doesn't have much practical deterrent value."

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