Academic journal article Policy Review

Thy Neighbor's Rap Sheet: How Do You Know Whether a Killer Lives Next Door?

Academic journal article Policy Review

Thy Neighbor's Rap Sheet: How Do You Know Whether a Killer Lives Next Door?

Article excerpt

On New Year's Eve 1975, after an evening of taking LSD and watching cop shows on television, 15-year-old Raul Meza showed up at a convenience store near his house in Austin, Texas, armed with a deer rifle. Meza emptied the cash register, then marched the clerk, a 20-year-old college student named Derly Ramirez, into the walk-in freezer. Meza shot him in the back and left him for dead.

Ramirez recovered to testify against the man who wounded him. Meza received a 20-year sentence, and served five years before getting out on parole.

On January 3, 1982, months after his release, 21-year-old Raul Meza abducted Kendra Page, a third-grader, as she rode her bicycle near her home in southeast Austin. Meza tortured, raped, and strangled the girl, then left her body behind a dumpster. Three days later, he surrendered to the police. Meza received 30 years for the killing.

While behind bars, Meza racked up demerits for various infractions, and four years were added to his sentence after guards found a knife in his cell. Meza came up for parole seven times, and each time it was denied.

By 1993, however, prison authorities could keep Meza no longer. Under Texas law, he had accumulated enough credit for good behavior to qualify automatically for release. The state freed him under mandatory supervision, a conditional release not unlike parole that can be granted without the consent of the parole board.

No matter how notorious, most felons leave prison with little fanfare. They re-enter society quietly and soon become anonymous. Some begin new and honest lives. Many others, freed from supervision and accountable to no one, commit new crimes. Raul Meza might have regained his freedom in the same way. But he never got the chance. One hundred and forty miles from Meza's Huntsville prison cell, an Austin newspaper editor decided to make him famous.

In 15 years of covering crimes, Jerry White, the city editor of the Austin American-Statesman, had watched scores of criminals disappear from public view after sentencing. Most of them left prison years before their sentences expired, often to rob, rape, or kill again. "It became apparent," says White, "that even though these folks are sentenced and sent away, the story doesn't really end." White began compiling a list of inmates who were "fairly notorious" in Austin. Every few months, he called the department of corrections to ask when inmates on his list would be eligible for parole.

In June 1993, the department of corrections confirmed that Meza was due to be released soon. Using the state's Open Records Act, the newspaper petitioned Texas's attorney general and found where Meza planned to live. An article ran on the front page of the Sunday paper eight days before Meza's release. The headline read, "'Nothing's Going To Stop It': Killer of 8-Year-Old About to be Freed."

In a city of about 465,000 people, the story reached 240,000 homes and provoked an outpouring of media attention. Film crews greeted Meza as he walked out of the state prison and followed him for months. Publicity, mostly bad, seemed to trail him everywhere. Corrections officials moved him from town to town, but in each residents and local politicians protested his presence. Colin Amann, a Houston lawyer who represented the killer after his release, says angry citizens "kicked him in the butt from one end of Texas to the other."

For much of 1993, Texans kept on kicking. Over several months, he was shuttled between towns and cities all over the state. Of the 276 halfway houses that were asked to accept Meza, 271 refused. "Every town he went to," says Amann, "people were just screaming and yelling. Lots of small communities went out and bitched about it. A lot. And it happened every time they'd move him, they had the same outcry."

In August, the parole division placed Meza on his grandparents' farm, west of San Antonio. On August 31, local sheriffs charged Meza with "terroristic threatening" and disorderly conduct for bullying his elderly grandparents. …

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