Justice or Vengeance?
A tale of tragedy and punishment in Williamson County
Four seconds. A flash. A moment here and gone. In four seconds, lives can change forever. One can end. Another can shatter.
Four seconds haunt Brandon Threet, who until recently was a student at UT-San Antonio and a salesman at a local Best Buy. It was a Saturday night, Oct. 6, 2001. Threet and his girlfriend attended a party in his suburban neighborhood of Anderson Mill, a reunion of recent graduates of Westwood High School back from college for another weekend bash. By midnight, the driveway was packed with shiny new trucks and SUVs. Bottles of Jack Daniels and joints were liberally passed around. When one guy pulled out a video camera, it was all hysterical giggles, stumbling, and babbling into the microphone, kids at a party having a damn good time.
Later that night, in the sort of mindless confrontation that can only be found at drunken teenage college parties, Threet faced off in the back yard with Terence McArdle, a bright, laughing 18-year-old UT-Austin student voted one of the most popular students during his years at Westwood. There was a flurry of blows. McArdle lay in the dirt. And then, in a flash of a moment that changed the destinies of two young men, Threet turned and, for no apparent reason, kicked McArdle in the head.
A week later, McArdle died.
In that instant, Threet, a 19-year-old with no previous record of violence, became a national poster child for teenage thugs. Local media enthusiastically followed the story of the "beating death" at the drunken party. The Oprah Winfrey Show broadcast the party video that unmistakably captured the horrifying incident, presenting Threet as the embodiment of the evil of teen parties. And in the courtroom, Williamson Co. District Attorney John Bradley prosecuted the case personally, portraying Threet as a violent, racist menace to society. At his urging, a jury slapped the teenager with the maximum sentence possible for manslaughter 20 years.
Today Threet is doing hard time in the unfortunately named Roach Unit, located outside Childress in North Texas. Now 23, he is ineligible for parole until 2012. Every day, he says, he relives those four seconds over and over again. "It's still like a dream to me," Threet says softly, as he sits in the prison meeting room. "I just wish I could wake up."
Two Young Lives
Chung McArdle is also haunted by those four seconds, unable to escape the image of her son lying on the ground, about to be kicked in the head. "That videotape plays in my head every day," she says quietly. "Every day." A financial analyst, she still has not been able to return to work. "I can't," she says. "My life is not the same anymore."
But Brandon Threet's family and friends say McArdle wasn't the only victim of that night's tragedy. Four years after the Williamson Co. jury handed Threet a 20-year sentence, they're still trying to convince the courts that something went terribly wrong with the case, that those four seconds do not define Threet's life. He's not the racist bully depicted in court and the media, they say. "He had never even been in a fight before," said his father, Rodney Threet, who runs a construction business.
Threet's supporters say his sentence was the result of an overzealous prosecutor, a lackadaisical defense by a legendary Austin attorney, and the official rush to portray Threet as a deadly thug. To appeal his case, Threet's family hired none other than Dick DeGuerin, the Houston attorney best known for winning a not-guilty verdict for Robert Durst, the fugitive millionaire who admitted chopping up his Galveston neighbor. (DeGuerin is currently in the headlines for representing Tom DeLay against charges of conspiracy and money laundering.) DeGuerin is trying to force the district attorney's office to provide reports and records from the case, but so far Bradley has refused. Earlier this year, Bradley took the unusual step of suing the attorney general after the state's top lawyer agreed that under the state's open records laws, the county is required to turn over the documents.
"Williamson County has, at least among defense attorneys, one of the worst reputations in the state for hiding the ball and not being forthcoming," said DeGuerin. "I don't know why the DA would hide records unless they have something to hide."
At the very least, Threet's supporters say, new evidence may show that the punishment for a 19-year-old with a spotless record didn't fit the crime. "This was an accident and it should have been portrayed as an accident," said Mark Young, a former FBI special agent who has been working for the Threets for two years, mostly on his own time. "I think there is an injustice that has been done here and I want it to be corrected."
When the Threets first approached Young about helping their son's case, he wasn't interested. "I told them, if my child had died in a fight, I'd want him in jail, too," said Young, a 32-year veteran of the FBI, who's now a partner in Dripping Springs-based Mag International, which regularly consults with families who are victims of violent crimes. But the more he investigated the Threet case, the more he felt something was wrong. "I didn't see anything right about this," Young says. "Everybody I spoke to said this was a nice guy."
Threet is most often described as "laid back." Pictures from high school show him as a smiling, broad shouldered kid, about 5 feet 9 inches tall, 165 pounds, sporting a shell necklace. He liked big trucks and baseball. He was a jock, but friends say he didn't fit the rowdy mold of some of his Westwood High football teammates. Later, his football coach testified that Threet was a third-string defensive back who didn't play much because he wasn't aggressive enough. Friends who've known him since elementary school say they've never seen him in a fight. "He didn't fight, he never fights," said Kate Giesy, his high school girlfriend for four years.
When his friends were at the lake partying, Threet was usually working. His father insisted he earn his own money to buy a truck, so he spent summers working construction jobs for his dad's company. Through one stretch he worked at a convenience store at night and went to school for tutoring at 6:30 the next morning.
Although they attended the same high school, by all accounts Threet had never previously met McArdle. Son of a Taiwanese mother and Irish father, McArdle was a constantly smiling honors student, fluent in Mandarin Chinese, who played cello in the school orchestra. He loved soccer and played on club teams, but never made the Westwood soccer varsity, serving as an alternate his junior and senior years. In his spare time, he volunteered with PROS (Peers Reaching Out and Sharing), a program working with at-risk children.
But McArdle's real passion was karate. He was a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do, a form that teaches discipline and self-defense. Practitioners learn how to avoid confrontation and contact, preaching inner strength. He could break four one-inch boards with one punch, but karate taught him to focus on "self control," he wrote, a few months before he died.
McArdle graduated from Westwood in June of 2001 and immediately started taking summer school classes at the UT-Austin so he could enter school as a sophomore in the fall. His college dorm room was decorated with posters of the Beatles, Green Day, and Bruce Lee. He thought he might go into social work. "My goal is to reach an old age and be able to look back on my life and smile," he wrote that June, "knowing that others have benefited from me being alive and that I have impacted their lives in a positive way."
Drink, Drugs, and Chaos
There was no big party planned that night, but everybody knew the old gang from Westwood would be gathering at somebody's house. Eric Stahl, back from Texas Tech, offered to play host at his mom's house off Anderson Mill; she was out of town. Stahl had been busted for having a party a few weeks earlier when the cops showed up, but when people started calling he said, what the hell, come on over.
By midnight there were 30-40 kids jammed into the house. Threet, who had known Stahl since the fourth grade, showed up late with Giesy, his girlfriend. Once he arrived, he later testified, he drank three or four cans of Coors Light and took a few slugs of whiskey.
On the videotape that ultimately recorded the attack, McArdle is seen for a brief moment earlier in the party, wearing ski goggles he found in an upstairs bedroom and laughing with a cute blond girl. Toxicologist reports offered at the trial said McArdle was not legally intoxicated and there were no drugs in his system, but witnesses say he was acting buzzed. Threet's friend Holly Morris says she saw McArdle smoke pot that night. When she asked him why he was wearing the goggles, he said, "It makes the high life higher and the drunk life drunker."
Late in the evening, still wearing the ski goggles, McArdle entertained the crowd with a backflip in the living room. When he landed he brushed against a chest, knocking over a picture. Threet, standing nearby, told him to cool it. Words were exchanged. Threet eventually grabbed the goggles off McArdle's head and shoved him, and told him again to "chill out." Stahl separated them and told them to head to the back yard.
The details of what happened next are in dispute. Some witnesses say Threet continued to goad McArdle. Angry, he kept mocking McArdle about the goggles and called him a "faggot," according to one witness (a version Threet denies). Others say McArdle continued to pester Threet, acting "loud" and refusing to settle down. "Terence had definitely been drinking," said Threet's friend, Blake Toungate.
Either way, there is no argument about the end result: McArdle and Threet agreed to face off in the back yard, toe to toe, and exchange blows to the chest, one at a time. The crowd stumbled out of the house to watch, including Brett Midgley, who held the video camera.
Midgley's videotape leaves no doubt about what happened next. McArdle and Threet are seen facing each other. McArdle is smiling, laughing. Threet stands stiffly, an inch or two taller than McArdle, wearing his baseball cap backward. McArdle takes the first shot, striking Threet squarely in the chest, knocking him back. Threet seems stunned for a moment. And then, for a lack of a better term, Threet flips out. He lands a punch squarely to McArdle's head and continues to hit McArdle as he crumples to the ground. One of Threet's friends, Justin Choate, tries to pull him off. Threet starts swinging wildly at Choate, driving him back. And then he turns back toward McArdle. Later, he would say he thought McArdle was starting to get up, although it's not clear from the tape. Threet takes three deliberate strides and kicks McArdle. On the video, there is no mistaking the sound of his boot hitting McArdle's head.
McArdle lay in the dirt for a few moments, before some of the kids at the party picked him up and carried him into the house, where he was placed on a flower-patterned recliner. Several kids tried to wake him, slapping his cheeks and calling out his name. One ran into the kitchen for ice. "It was chaos," Choate said in a later deposition. No one wanted to call an ambulance. They were almost all underage, drunk and stoned, and the house was littered with booze and drug paraphernalia. One girl tried to call 911, but the phone was slapped out of her hands.
For at least 30 minutes McArdle remained unconscious, limp, occasionally slipping off the chair, bleeding from his mouth. His breathing became more and more labored. It sounded like he was "snoring," one girl later testified. Finally, when he started to turn blue, a girl named Marie Puryear loaded him into her father's Expedition and took him to the hospital.
The next morning, not knowing if McArdle would live or die, Threet drove himself to the Williamson Co. Sheriff's Department and voluntarily gave a written statement to a deputy. After he made the statement, the deputy told Threet that McArdle had died (which wasn't true). Threet broke down and wrote a tearful apology to the McArdles. "I am truly sorry," he wrote, "and I understand ... that you probably hate me right now. I did not mean at all to hurt your son. I had no grudge against him and did not dislike him in any way. I have been praying and will continue to pray ... I am so, so sorry." He gave it to a deputy, who labeled it evidence and never delivered it.
Bradley v. Minton
Even with his signed statement, prosecuting Threet might still have been difficult if not for the video shot that night, which captured every second of the brutal tragedy. When Threet saw the video for the first time, he broke down and cried. "I didn't do that," he told his father. "I can't believe that's me."
During the trial, Williamson Co. DA John Bradley showed the video over and over again, frame by frame, allowing the jury to repeatedly hear the awful sound of Threet's boot hitting McArdle's head. Bradley is known as a hard charger, a hang-'em-high, old-school Texas prosecutor in an old-school DA's office. "In Williamson County they regularly and proudly get the maximum sentence," said Austin defense attorney Keith Hampton, who handled Threet's first appeal. "It's a big deal in their office."
After 12 years as a prosecutor in Williamson County, Bradley was appointed DA by Gov. Perry in Dec. 2001, just a few months after McArdle's death. At the time of the Threet trial, July, 2002, Bradley was facing his first contested election to formally win the job that November (which he did).
Bradley asked the jury to convict Threet of murder and put him in prison for the rest of his life. The only deal he offered was 50 years, Rodney Threet says. In his opening statement, Bradley labeled Threet's kick an intentional "attack" and portrayed him as a racist bully, a ticking time bomb just waiting to go off. Bradley played up the rivalries of the old high school cliques McArdle was the soccer nerd; Threet was the bully football player looking for a fight. "He was picking on Terence," Bradley told the jury.
Threet's attorney was 70-year-old Roy Minton, one of the most renowned defense attorneys in Austin. His high-profile clients have ranged from the LBJ family to Bob Bullock and Ann Richards to former UT basketball coach Tom Penders and currently, Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick. He also represents the Texas Association of Business, the controversial Capitol lobbying organization, in its defense against charges of campaign violations in the 2002 election. "Minton is widely seen as the attorney of record for politicians in trouble," according to a 2004 article in The Texas Observer.
In Threet's trial, Minton presented himself as a friendly, grandfatherly figure, rarely making objections, and rolling out questions with "okey dokey" and an occasional reference to his Denton roots. From the start he and co-counsel Sam Bassett did little to deny the horrors of the incident. "The best way I can phrase it is he just attacked him," Minton told the jury in his opening argument.
With no evidence of violence in Threet's past, Bradley stretched to find dirt. A classmate from the ninth grade testified that once, four years earlier, he heard Threet use the word "chink." Another witness testified that she once saw Threet throw down a cell phone. According to a former classmate, two years earlier Threet punched a fence after an argument with Giesy (although she later testified he had simply pushed a gate open).
Bradley made football a centerpiece of his prosecution, suggesting that Threet's status as a reserve defensive back gave him the tools of a trained killer. Teammates were brought in to testify that Threet lifted weights and wore a helmet, suggesting he knew a blow to the head could be dangerous. "In football, players are penalized for blows to the head, right?" he asked one witness.
At one point, Bradley tried to establish that Threet had formed a "fight club," mimicking the popular Brad Pitt movie. But when Bradley asked a former Westwood student named Jamie Perry, "Did [Threet] indicate to you anything about whether he was involved in a fight club?" Perry replied, "He never said anything like that."
Bradley repeatedly sparred with his own witnesses, who were not saying what he thought they would say. Several of Threet's friends say they felt Bradley was trying to bully them, to force them to say things they didn't believe. "He was definitely trying to intimidate me," Toungate said. Bradley repeatedly tried to get Toungate to testify that Threet left the party after the fight to go to another party, bolstering his image of Threet as callous and remorseless. That led to this fairly typical exchange:
Bradley: Didn't you tell me that Brandon Threet told you that he was going to another party?
Bradley: You didn't tell me that?
Toungate: I said someone was going to a party.
Bradley: Do you remember sitting in my office?
Toungate: Yes, sir.
Bradley: Do you remember telling me and I asked you three times if Brandon Threet told you he was going to another party?
Toungate: I said I didn't know who was going to another party.
Bradley was openly contemptuous of the middle-class kids who attended the party. "They should all be ashamed of themselves," he later told a reporter from the Austin American-Statesman. "They all made themselves sound like little heroes. They spent more time worrying whether the police were going to find their marijuana and alcohol than taking a seriously injured person to the hospital."
Ultimately, Bradley's key witness was a highway patrolman for the Department of Public Safety, Sgt. James Debrow, who trains officers on the use of force. After watching the video, he concluded that Threet was definitely "trained" in violence, most likely in boxing or the martial arts. Based solely on his viewing of the video, Debrow testified that Threet had definitely been in fights before. It was as close as Bradley came to demonstrating any history of physical confrontations in Threet's past.
"It's Different Here"
When Threet took the stand in his own defense, Bradley quickly scored points, getting him to agree that the confrontation wasn't a "fight":
Bradley: Did you hit him in the face without him knowing it was coming?
Threet: Yes, sir.
Bradley: Why isn't that an attack?
Threet: I guess you can consider it an attack.
Bradley: But it's certainly not a fight, is it?
Threet: No, sir.
Threet didn't try to offer an excuse for what happened. "I'm not here to say that I'm not guilty," he said on the stand. But he repeatedly denied any intent to cause McArdle's death. "I never intended to hurt him," Threet insisted. "I never would ever intend to hurt anybody that bad."
After Threet, Minton called only three witnesses during his initial defense phase Giesy, Morris, and Threet's mother, Lisa. Minton didn't call any experts to counter the medical testimony or the damaging conclusions made by the state highway patrolman that Threet appeared "trained" as a fighter. Challenging the prosecution's experts would only have garnered resentment among the jurors, Minton said in a recent interview. "I thought it would be a mistake to try to make the jury believe the kick didn't kill him," Minton said.
After waiting months to defend her friend, Morris was on the stand for only a few minutes to offer a brief description of what she saw that night. When she walked into the hall after testifying, she screamed at Minton, unable to control herself. "You wasted our fucking time," she said. "You're not doing shit."
Nevertheless, Minton's friendly approach clearly won over some members of the jury, at least to a degree. They rejected Bradley's argument that Threet intended to kill McCardle, dumping the murder charge. But they found him guilty of manslaughter and labeled his foot a "deadly weapon."
The punishment phase of the trial, which would ultimately decide Threet's fate, lasted about four hours. Bradley stuck to his moral themes, arguing that Threet had not learned the lessons of the evils of teen parties. "You will hear evidence that [Threet] has been to a couple of parties since this occurred," Bradley told the jury, "that he ... still thinks going out at night and going to parties and being around people who are illegally drinking is the right way to be." After Threet's math teacher testified about how hard he worked to pass an algebra course and that he was shocked at his role in McArdle's death, Bradley's first question was, "Would it have surprised you to know that Brandon smoked marijuana?"
In his closing, Bradley apologized to the jury. "I have not been able to go get the teenagers of Westwood to come in here and all tell you the truth," he said. "They have all gathered around the jock, the football player, the good guy." He implored the jury to send a message about Williamson Co. "Maybe over there in some places the rules are a little softer, a little different," he said. "But you and I both know that it's different here. It's different for a reason."
The jury deliberated for two hours before sentencing Threet to the maximum 20 years. Due to the "deadly weapon" verdict, he wouldn't be eligible for parole for at least 10 years. "Keep in mind that when we started this trial, the maximum penalty was life," said Bassett, after the sentencing. But Minton acknowledged he was disappointed. "I was hoping for something in the neighborhood of 10 years, 12 years, maybe 15," he said.
A Pound of Flesh
After Young, the former FBI agent, first met the Threets he showed the video to veteran prosecutors in other Texas counties, many known for being tough on crime. "They laughed at me," Young said. "They said, 'He got probation, right?'"
After studying the transcript, Hampton believes the DA was simply going for a win. "This is worse than vengeance," said Hampton, who handled the Threet's appeal. "It's really just the DA's office getting a pound of flesh for their own satisfaction." Soon after Hampton took the case, he went out to meet with Threet. "The first thing that struck me was, he's a kid," Hampton said. "You compare the sentence and then you meet him and you think, how could this have happened?"
Hampton interviewed several members of the jury, whom he describes as "pleased as punch" with the sentence, feeling Threet "got what he deserved." In general, the jurors didn't buy Bradley's theories, but several thought the fence-punching incident constituted a "pattern of violence," Hampton found. Minton says he wasn't surprised by the maximum sentence. There was no getting around the images of the video, he says. "It appears to be a brutal assault," he said. "I think the jury saw it for what it was."
In 2002, Hampton filed a request for a new trial on the grounds that the trial presented a "misleading impression" of Threet's character and that the 20-year sentence was "cruel and unusual punishment." But the appeal was denied by the Third District Court of Appeals, which ruled that "the evidence supports the manslaughter conviction."
But the Threets have refused to let the case rest. After spending $50,000 for Minton's defense, Rodney Threet, his father, now expects to spend more than $100,000 on appeals, convinced that his son did not receive justice. A first-time offender shouldn't be treated like a hardened criminal, just because the trial was in Williamson Co., he says. "It was not supposed to be about sending a message to Williamson County, it was supposed to be about Brandon," Rodney Threet said.
Lisa Threet, Brandon's mother, who is remarried and lives near Houston, writes her son every day. She can't sleep most nights. "In our hearts, we can't accept that he might spend 20 years of his life in prison," she said. "We promised him we would fight to the bitter end."
Losing a Son
At this point, the investigation is focusing on medical evidence, specifically whether or not Threet's kick actually should have been a fatal blow. "I looked at the fight and said this kid should not have died," Young said. Although the attending doctors and the medical examiner testified that Threet's blow caused McArdle's death, medical experts who have reviewed the available evidence think McArdle may have been suffering from a pre-existing condition, Young said. There are also questions about his treatment in the hospital, as well as lingering suspicion about the effect of those lost minutes at the party, when McArdle lay dying on the recliner.
"This was an unfortunate fight at a party," said DeGuerin, who has represented Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, among others. "Obviously it turned deadly, but I don't think what Brandon did was severe enough to cause this young man's death." Based on new evidence, DeGuerin hopes to file a writ of habeas corpus to reverse the conviction. That may be Threet's last hope.
However, at this point, the case is stymied by Bradley's refusal to turn over the Sheriff's Department's reports and medical records. The attorney general ruled in favor of the Threets, saying Bradley must give up the documents. But Bradley's office filed suit, hoping to convince a judge to block the attorney general's decision. In a court filing, Bradley's office argued the information "serves no legitimate public purpose and substantially affects the District Attorney's ability to continue to investigate, prosecute and protect the finality of the case."
Bradley declined to respond to written questions about the Threet case, citing "the likelihood of additional litigation." In an e-mail, however, he encouraged a reporter to watch the video of the incident, "as it certainly was the single strongest basis for the jury's decision at trial."
Speaking in their attorney's office, James and Chung McArdle leave no doubt where they stand on Threet's sentence. "I don't think it was harsh enough," James McArdle said. "If you take someone's life without it being self-defense, you should forfeit your own life. It doesn't mean death, it means you don't have a life." Chung McArdle said, "Ask if your son was killed, was it enough?"
The McCardles filed a civil suit against Threet; Eric Stahl, the host of the party; and Stahl's mother, who owned the house, charging them with negligence. A judge dismissed the case against Stahl and his mother, but handed down a $1.1 million judgment against Threet.
Every day, the McArdles deal with signs of their lost son. They pass by the pool where he spent two years as a lifeguard. His father drives Terence's old truck. They live only a few blocks from the Threets; they know many of the same families. But they haven't spoken since the trial. "Losing a son is absolutely terrible," said James McArdle, the grief flowing across his face.
"Just a Kid"
Threet says he thinks of the McArdles often. "I can't blame them," he said quietly. "I just hope one of these days they'll understand it was an accident. I never meant it to come out this way."
Dressed in his all-white prison uniform, Threet no longer looks like the 19-year-old kid fresh out of high school. He's bulked up to 200 pounds and his hair is cropped close. He wears wire-rim glasses, which frame his green eyes. Often described as a kid who liked to make everybody smile, he talks softly, avoiding eye contact. Any twinkle in his green eyes seems long gone.
He is categorized as a deadly felon, and most of his fellow prisoners are murderers and multiple offenders, many serving lighter sentences than his. "It's hard to live with that," Threet said. "There are people here who beat people with bats and golf clubs." He says he mainly keeps to himself. He works on the loading dock and takes classes in business administration. "In here it's too easy to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said. Threet's parents say he rarely shares details about life in the prison. "There's a lot of things he doesn't talk to us about," Rodney said. "Brandon is a very strong kid."
Sitting in the prison meeting room, Threet says he's still unable to answer the questions that haunt everyone touched by those four seconds in 2001 Why? What happened? Why did he snap? "I don't know why I blew up," he said, his head down, struggling to answer questions he has heard a million times. "I just reacted ... everything happened so fast. ... When I see him getting up ..."
He goes over it again and again in his mind, but he knows there is no answer. "Every day I wake up and regret what happened and I can't do anything about it," he said, fighting the tears. He often thinks back to life as a 19-year-old and tries to connect it with what his life has become the legacy of those four seconds.
"I was just a kid like anybody else."