First came the poor man, barely 17 years old – too young to buy beer or vote, but an adult under the Texas penal code. He took part in a $2 stickup in which no one got hurt. He pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery and was put on 10 years of probation.
He broke the rules once, by smoking marijuana. A Dallas judge responded in the harshest possible way: He replaced the original sentence with a life term in prison.
here Tyrone Brown sits today, 16 years later, tattooed and angry and pondering self-destruction. "I've tried suicide a few times," he writes. "What am I to make of a life filled with failure, including failing to end my life?"
Now the flip side of the coin, also from Judge Keith Dean's court: A well-connected man pleaded guilty to murder – for shooting an unarmed prostitute in the back – and also got 10 years of probation.
The killer proceeded to break the rules by, among other things, smoking crack cocaine. He repeatedly failed drug tests. He was arrested for cocaine possession in Waco while driving a congressman's car, but prosecutors there didn't press charges.
Judge Dean has let this man stay free and, last year, exempted him from most of the usual conditions of probation. John Alexander "Alex" Wood no longer must submit to drug tests or refrain from owning a gun or even meet with a probation officer. He's simply supposed to obey the law and mail the court a postcard once a year that gives his current address.
The judge's written court policies say that defendants who have broken the rules are not eligible for postcard probation. But no one can make him obey his own standards. Indeed, judges in Texas and most other states have few limits on possible punishments when defendants violate probation, which sets the stage for lawful but extreme disparities.
And "you can't tell what the reasons are," said Kevin Reitz, a University of Minnesota law professor who is one of the nation's leading experts on sentencing guidelines. "I call this a black box system. You have someone with a lot of power and no burden of explanation."
Judge Dean, a widely respected 20-year veteran of the Dallas criminal bench, said he wouldn't discuss the two cases because he might have to rule on them again someday. In general, he said, he tries to evaluate "the potential danger to the community" when someone violates probation "and what, in the long run, is going to be in the best interest of the community and the person themselves."
The judge gave Mr. Wood his special privileges without receiving a formal request, court records show. "This certainly undermines one's confidence in the judicial system around here," said Rick Jordan, who was the prosecutor on Mr. Wood's case and now is a defense attorney.
Mr. Wood, who is 46 and raises show dogs, said he has avoided prison by having top-flight legal counsel and building good relations with probation officers. His sentence is set to expire at the end of May.