The Power of Stories to Change the World

Dear Friends:

At Texas Defender Service, we believe in the power of stories to change the world. Since 2018 alone, TDS has used storytelling to save 41 lives. Coming into September, we have important news: Two more of our clients have received life instead of death sentences.

We want to share the story of Joseph Tejeda, our client who was sentenced to 25 years last month for his involvement in a gang-related death. Father Greg Boyle, who has dedicated his life to serving people who are former gang members in Los Angeles, California, has said, “No kid is seeking anything when he joins a gang; he’s always fleeing something. He’s not being pulled; he’s being pushed by the circumstances in which he finds himself.”

Joseph’s life exemplifies this truth. When Joseph was a boy his parents heavily used drugs, including meth, heroin, cocaine, and pills. Their house reeked of pot. Joseph’s parents encouraged him to use drugs, too.

Instead of toys or candy, Joseph’s parents put a bag of weed, a pipe, and a $100 bill in his Christmas stocking each year.

Joseph’s dad got him into crack cocaine, introducing him to it when Joseph was only 13 years old. They would get high together every day. Joseph’s father sold crack and Joseph helped him find buyers.

Joseph’s dad was a screamer, yelling at the kids for spilling a cup or falling off a bike. Meanwhile, Joseph struggled in school and could barely read. Many suspected he was “slow” and had undiagnosed learning problems. He got Cs or Fs and eventually dropped out in 9th grade.

When Joseph was a teenager, his parents separated and his mother became homeless. Joseph lived on the streets with his mom for six months, sleeping outside or in a car. Joseph eventually found an abandoned apartment and he and his mother squatted in it.

Family and friends described Joseph’s neighborhood as “dangerous.” Joseph was familiar with violence from a young age: he was stabbed by a schoolmate in middle school and his close friend was shot in the face and chest. Like many young boys in the neighborhood, Joseph fell into a gang, which served as a source of protection that his parents never provided. To avoid being attacked, Joseph got tattoos all over his face to make him look tough. Despite his appearance, Joseph was fundamentally a follower. He had little criminal history and friends described him as gentle.

Joseph is a former gang member. And: He is a son. He is a brother. He is a father. He is a survivor.

So often, we lose sight of who we are punishing and ignore the social suffering that gives rise to violence. When we do this, we cause a lot of hurt: 80% of people incarcerated in Texas prisons have children under the age of 18. That is astonishing.

We also lose a precious opportunity. Harsh sentences don’t make us safer. Data even suggests that extreme punishments can actually increase people’s chances of reoffending by destabilizing their lives. Instead of focusing resources on harsh sentences, we could instead engage with proven solutions that help communities heal and address the root causes of violence.  

Let’s focus on solutions that work.

With gratitude,

Burke Butler
Executive Director
Texas Defender Service