July-August 2007

A time capsule for future parole hearings

Terese Buess

Assistant DA in Harris County

Allison Buess

Law Student at the University of Houston Law Center

Williamson County’s parole task force ensures that today’s crime victims still have a voice when their perpetrators come up for parole many years in the future.

My boss, John Bradley, recently gave me a letter he received from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Parole Division telling us who is eligible for parole. Mr. Bradley does this every week, flagging files so he can draft parole protest letters for particularly violent defendants. But this time, the notification included a name I vaguely recognized: Terrance D. Sampson.

In December 1989, in Round Rock, Kelly Elaine Brumbelow, a vibrant, 13-year-old competitive gymnast, cheerleader, and honor student, was stabbed more than 97 times by her 12-year-old neighbor, friend, and classmate, Terrance Sampson, who then hid her body in his parents’ backyard under a pile of firewood. Sampson was caught, tried as a juvenile, and sentenced to the then-maximum confinement for someone his age: 30 years. He began serving his sentence at the Texas Youth Commission, but at age 18, the juvenile court transferred him to an adult prison, where he has been eligible for parole four times. As usual, we planned to protest his parole, but this time it would be with the help of a new task force.

Researching the original case

I began looking for the case file so Mr. Bradley could refresh his memory of the case and provide the parole board with details of Sampson’s violent acts. (Only one prosecutor in our office, Mr. Bradley himself, was working in Williamson County when this horrible crime occurred. Back then, John had been hired as an assistant district attorney, while today he is the elected DA.) To my dismay, I discovered that the case file had probably been destroyed, no telling how long ago, by the office that originally prosecuted Sampson as a juvenile. We had to reconstruct it from other records that our district clerk’s office had recovered and slides of the crime scene from the investigating officer, who now lives out of state.

All of this work would have been avoided if our office’s new parole protest task force had existed in 1989. The task force is a group of volunteers, made up of concerned citizens, victims, and/or family members of crime victims, led by me, our office’s victim-witness coordinator, who prepare a packet of information about a case, usually major violent crime prosecutions, immediately after sentencing. We include crime scene photos, autopsy reports, news articles, victim statements, and anything that humanizes the victims for the future parole board. We do not digitize the information because we can’t be sure what technology will exist in 20 years; we want the parole board members to easily view the packets, after all. But we are considering adding a DVD that would include interviews of family members, who might not be alive or available when parole consideration comes up.

In general, the task force focuses on cases resulting in a sentence of 40 years or more. Under current law, those cases won’t come up for parole review for at least 20 years. And who knows where the file will be or whether surviving victims, their families, or prosecutors will be around to discuss the crime and its impact to the parole review board. Creating a packet with all of the pertinent information is like setting aside a time capsule of the case that will be opened sometime in the future and—we hope—shed light on a long-ago violent crime and its impact on the victims and their loved ones.
We talked about our new task force to local newspapers and several TV stations, adding information on how to contact our office if citizens were interested in volunteering for it. We also talked to people who had previously voiced interest in doing volunteer work for our office. The response we got was overwhelming.

But not everyone was right for the job. We wanted people who had experienced the victims’ side of the judicial system, but it was important that they had already gone through sufficient grieving and reflection and progressed in dealing with their own trauma. We believed this type of work would empower and strengthen victims who were in the active phase of their healing. One mother of a child who suffered sexual abuse stated, “I was elated when I became part of this task force. We wanted to be part of a group that would make a difference in keeping our community safe.”

The volunteers were carefully screened and trained to collect information from case files. Prior to being selected, candidates were asked to fill out an application which involves criminal history checks and mandates confidentiality. We also taught them how to read the TDCJ Parole Division notices. The volunteers then prepare a packet of information that is published in book form and delivered to parole board members considering the parole eligibility of these violent offenders.

When reviewing the parole notice from TDCJ, we also check to see if the conviction and sentence have been recorded correctly. We do find errors in sentence length and detainer information, and TDCJ has been very helpful in correcting these mistakes when called to its attention.

I recently attended a conference attended by two parole board members. Both of them agreed that they look for new information not already in their files (e.g., photos of the crimes, letters from child victims who are now adults, protest letters with details, new arrests, etc.). They agreed that these things make a difference in whether a violent criminal is granted parole.

The Brumbelow case

Which brings us back to Terrance Sampson. Right about the time I was gathering information for Mr. Bradley and the parole board—and I believe it was fate—our office administrator, Sandi Andrews, attended a workshop where Kelly’s mother, Judy Brumbelow, was the motivational speaker. Sandi was so impressed by Ms. Brumbelow’s talk that she wanted to invite Judy to speak to our office staff—and then we received Sampson’s parole notice from TDCJ. I waited a few days, then contacted Judy to get her input on protesting Sampson’s parole, handling it delicately because I didn’t want to re-victimize her. Plus, I needed to explain that we didn’t have all the materials we needed and wondered if she had kept any newspaper articles we could copy. I was nervous about our meeting and how she would react to my requests for help, but I was pleasantly surprised. She is beautiful both inside and out, exuding spiritual strength that only a higher power can be given credit for. She tells me, “It truly is a privilege to be working on this packet with you and your staff.” I say that the privilege is all mine!

The whole process will ensure that Kelly Brumbelow remains a living, breathing person in the minds of the parole board members considering whether her killer is released early from prison. The parole protest packet that volunteers are now preparing will supplement the information Judy Brumbelow provided. Photographs of the brutal murder will be published alongside a description of the investigation. No one looking through the packet will minimize or forget the terrible consequences of Terrance Sampson’s murderous rage.

We are grateful to have found a team of volunteers willing to share this dark side of reality and trust that we will make a difference down the road. We are always taking applications for people interested in volunteering for our task force. Should you be interested in more information about the task force or how to form one, please do not hesitate to call our office at 512/943-1234.