In 1892, Wyoming hosts its first execution and it’s a teenage boy named Kansas Charley. His trial causes a big national debate: is Charley a hardened criminal or a neglected child? It’s a question we still haven’t answered in the American West, where children are incarcerated in greater numbers than anywhere else. We also hear from a modern-day Kansas Charley who’s living out his days in Wyoming’s prisons who says, growing up, no one ever asked him the simple question: do you need help?
A warning, this episode includes references to violence and suicide. Please take care when listening. And if you’re struggling, call Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
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[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]
A Dreamy Place To Be A Kid
Melodie Edwards: I’m a small-town gal. If you listened to our season called Ghost Town(ing), you probably heard a lot about my childhood in Walden, a tiny town in northern Colorado. Back then, before cable, we only had three T.V. channels, so all the kids in town spent a lot of time outdoors: digging snow forts, riding our bikes all the way up to the rodeo grounds, skipping double dutch in the middle of the street. I felt safe, and I knew that if something bad happened, like the time that I almost got hit by a car, that my neighbors would bring me in the house, wrap me in a hug and call my parents to come get me.
Over the years, I lived in some good-sized urban places. But when the time came to raise my own family, I wanted to give them some of what I grew up with. That small-town feel. So we moved to Laramie, Wyoming, a college town nestled between two mountain ranges. It feels like a big small town. Safe for them to bike everywhere. Safe for them to learn to drive on the long wide-open back roads. Now my twin daughters are 18. I can’t believe I’m saying that! But Laramie’s been a great place to raise them. Every summer, we take backpacking trips into the mountains and canyons. They know how to hang a bear bag, build a fire, and every winter, we cross country ski into the backcountry.
A dreamy place to be a kid, right?
But a few years ago, I started to see a different side to raising children in the American West. One of my daughters started to struggle with mental health issues that were making school hard. But I thought, ok, we can handle this. Wyoming has good schools, some of the best-funded in the whole country. So I figured we’ll just talk to the school, and we’ll get some help. Some of her teachers totally understood that her learning disability wasn’t who she was, and they took her under their wing. But there were others in the school system who treated my daughter like she just wasn’t trying hard enough. One teacher even called her lazy. I was surprised at the way so many around her blamed her or shrugged their shoulders when she started slipping. Then the pandemic came along, her classes went virtual and she fell through the cracks even deeper. I saw her school absences skyrocket. I saw her grades – and her self-esteem – plummet. All the dreams she’d had for herself growing up, they started to pop like balloons. She started seeking out even more trouble. Then when her senior year came along, we sat down and had a hard conversation. To both of us, it felt like our relationship with her school was broken. She decided to drop out of high school and pursue her GED.
The sad thing is that my daughter’s story is far from unique, and for lots of kids, it takes a much darker course.
“I just wanted someone to look at me and be like, let me help you. No one told me that. They just told me, like, you’re a bad kid. You’re suspended.”
“I feel like the justice system really let him down in so many ways.”
“I feel like even if I did do good, I would still lose.”
“The system screwed me over. They said they would help and they didn’t. And they messed me up mentally more than I ever was. Like, before the system, I was never thinking about suicide.”
“It was me and three other girls. The other girls were white. And I’m the one that got the ticket.”
“Once you are painted as a bad kid, that brushstroke follows you.”
“I told my husband, is there a risk that we take raising them here? It just freaks me out.”
Despite seeming like the perfect place to grow up, states in the American West have some of the highest teen suicide and juvenile incarceration rates. Wyoming, where we live, has some of the worst numbers on both fronts. And you’ve got to wonder: How can a place that seems so idyllic for kids also be such a harsh and unforgiving place to grow up?
This season we bring you, Cowboy, Up, a three-part look at how we raise children in the American West. We’re going to focus especially on Wyoming since the statistics here are so glaring. What exactly is Wyoming’s approach to its most struggling kids? And why are so many of them, like my own daughter, falling through the cracks?
Reporter Tennessee Watson has spent years covering education and child wellbeing in Wyoming and has thought a lot about how to help kids succeed and what happens when they don’t.
Are You Okay?
Tennessee Watson: When I rolled into Laramie on December 21, 2016, to start my job at Wyoming Public Radio, a blizzard had taken the power out. High winds on the interstate were blowing tractor-trailer trucks over, and the snowdrifts were taller than me, and I’m tall. I was quickly reassured that I’d be fine because everyone looks out for each other here. I mean, you should keep a sleeping bag and snacks and water in your car in case you slide off the road and get stranded, but eventually, someone will come along and help you out.
I went into my new job as an education reporter curious about what these close-knit communities where everyone looks out for each other would be like for kids. I’d long been fascinated with how systems help or hurt kids.
Before moving to Wyoming, I spent over ten years teaching journalism and media production to teens in big east coast cities.
In the last class I taught at a place called the Educational Video Center, the students made a documentary film about mental health in New York City schools. The students were inspired to tackle this subject because of what one of their classmates had been through.
“I’m Kareem Lee-Chianese and I’m 16 years old. In ninth and tenth grade, I’d been going through a lot. My house burned down. The relationship between my mom and stepdad started to burn down too. I moved in with my dad for the first time since my parents split. At school, I was having trouble focusing. I started cutting class and getting into trouble.”
Acting indifferent, cutting class, trouble focusing, those can all be signs that kids are struggling mentally and emotionally. But over and over again I heard stories of teachers telling troubled kids to just get it together.
“They were just, like, come on, come on. It would just be, you know you’re better than this. Como on. Rather than getting into what the problem is.”
My students didn’t blame their teachers, knowing that teachers were doing their best within a system that stripped away opportunities for personal connection and empathy. But being asked to muscle through their feelings made learning even harder. Some kids gave up on school. Some got high to numb feeling like a failure. Some attempted suicide. And most kids felt like maybe things wouldn’t get so bad for kids if adults talked to them a little differently.
“I think something helpful to hear is, ‘are you ok?’ It was just ‘come on’ rather than ‘is everything ok?’”
The students who made that video were from all over New York City, from all different schools, but they were all witnessing the same thing. Kids were being funneled into the juvenile justice system for things like skipping school and doing drugs when what they needed was support. Support they knew their teachers alone shouldn’t be expected to provide.
They called for more school-based mental health professionals, more opportunities for mentoring, more positive ways to express their feelings. You know, stuff that requires funding and logistics. But at the core, what my students wanted was empathy. They taught me there’s a powerful difference between asking a kid, “Hey, what’s your problem?” and, “Are you ok?”
I left teaching to become an education reporter, to understand what we could be doing better for kids. Not just in schools, but as communities. Which is what brought me to Wyoming.
It made sense to me that kids would fall through the cracks in New York. There are just so many people. I thought Wyoming with its can-do neighborly spirit might be different. But it turns out kids really aren’t better-taken care of here. Rather than troubled kids getting help, they’re incarcerated, or worse, they take their own lives at rates well above the national average.
And I took those stats to mean that Wyoming’s small communities were struggling to keep kids out of trouble, and I wanted to know why. How did we end up like this?
The story of traumatized kids not being helped goes back to Wyoming’s founding, in more ways than one. But I was shocked to learn that the first state-sanctioned execution was of a child: an infamous boy murderer named Kansas Charley. His story starts with a childhood of mistreatment and ends in violence.
Suzi Taylor is an archivist at the Wyoming State Archives. And last July we sat down at a table piled with files to sort through what’s left of Kansas Charley.
“Hi, I’m Suzy. I’m going to set you probably at the table here. And then I’ve got some files on your friend Charley. I’ve got a whole folder here and copies that relate to Charley Miller.”
Kansas Charley was actually Charles Miller, a poor immigrant orphan from New York City.
“Prison calendars show he was 5-foot-4 and they described him as having light hair, blue eyes, and a light complexion. He must have been very fair,” Suzi says, shuffling through the old calendars.
Like most people, Suzi wasn’t familiar with Charley’s story. And there was something suspenseful about dusting off this piece of forgotten Wyoming history together.
“Cause of commitment is murder. Time of commitment is October 19 of 1890.”
The archive has a lot on what happened to Charley after his arrest, but I learned most of what I’m about to tell you from a book by Joan Jacobs Brumberg called Kansas Charley.
And the story of how Charles Miller became the infamous Kansas Charley starts in midtown Manhattan, where he was born on November 20, 1874.
The building he grew up in was packed with German immigrants like Charley’s family, as well as Irish immigrants, all newly arrived in the hopes of a better life.
But a better life didn’t happen for Charley.
When he was just five years old, his mother died. His dad started drinking, and within a year of his mom’s death, Charley’s dad died by suicide, and he and his three siblings were placed at an orphanage. His oldest sister was the first to be adopted and then his two brothers, but Charley struggled to find a family that wanted him because he was a chronic bedwetter.
Now we know bedwetting is a symptom of trauma, but back then, doctors thought it might be an anatomical problem. So the orphanage attempted to cure the bedwetting by circumcising Charley when he was twelve years old.
A year later, Charley was sent on an orphan train to Minnesota.
Martin Woodside studies the cultural history of childhood in the twentieth century and wrote a book called Frontiers of Boyhood about boys growing up out West.
“Specifically how the frontier shaped the boy into the right kind of man,” Martin tells me.
The first orphan train left New York bound for Michigan in 1854. These trains took poor, usually Catholic immigrant kids away from their supposedly unfit families in the big, dirty city, and shipped them out West to live. The idea, according to Protestant charities, was that the Western frontier turned lazy boys into hard-working, virtuous, and independent men.
“The idea was that the experience of leaving the corrupt city and going to the country would restore them, and the hard work of working on a farm and living that sort of agrarian, idealized life would restore them and teach them hard work,” says Martin.
As far as these charities were concerned, the root of these kids’ problems was their poor immigrant and Catholic families, so sending them out of the city to live in nice Protestant homes was supposed to be helpful.
“So you get these families adopting them out west, but a lot of the time, you get mixed results. So some families would really want a child and they’d adopt a child, and a lot of them just wanted labor.”
Charles Miller boarded an orphan train in 1887 headed for rural Minnesota along with 18 other boys and girls. Charley was taken home by a couple with a 160-acre farm. The farmers were in their early fifties and their six children were all grown, so adopting Charley was a way to get some more help on the farm.
“So what happens with somebody like Kansas Charley is he is sent out there, and you know, the experience goes sour.”
Having arrived in March, he was immediately thrown into preparing fields for spring planting. He wasn’t given much time to attend school, and when the couple discovered Charley wet the bed, they whipped him. He tried to run away several times, but the orphan train charity never came to rescue him. Abandoning his plans to adopt Charley, the farmer dropped the boy back off at the train depot where he found him without food, money, or a train ticket.
Charley at 13 years old was now on his own and did what he needed to do to survive. He started riding freight trains around the west picking up work where he could. Living the tramp life, Charley was free from adults’ expectations and critique. He felt more like a man than a kid who still wets the bed. And it was at this moment, as he’s setting out on his own, that he names himself Kansas Charley, inspired by the names of characters in the Western dime novels he read.
“Then he ends up on his own sort of riding the rails, and he loves these dime novels. And dime novels have these figures who do what they want, and no one tells them what to do and a lot of them were really young,” Martin says.
So this unadoptable orphan without a family to guide him gets the idea from dime novels that it’s ok to do what you’ve got to do to take care of yourself. He wanted to be tough. Independent. A cowboy.
And it wasn’t just dime novels pushing the idea that young men could and should head west. In 1889, Teddy Roosevelt published his four-volume history of American expansion called The Winning of the West. It celebrated the rugged pioneers and brave cowboys, not as perpetrators of genocide, but as valiant nation builders. No matter the source, it’s safe to assume Charley saw the west as a place to reinvent himself as tough.
But new traumas lay ahead. In a boxcar in Omaha, Charley is gang-raped by a group of hobos. After that, he gets a gun for protection. Then in late September 1890, Charley decides he’ll go to Wyoming to find a job on a ranch. He was riding a boxcar headed from Sidney, Nebraska to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Around the town of Kimball, Nebraska, he ended up in the same car as two other kids, ages 18 and 20. And at some point on that ride, he killed them with the gun.
“Remorse Has Never Visited Him”
Any argument that the murder was motivated by fear was tainted by the fact that Charley robbed the dead boys before he fled the scene. Upon arriving in Cheyenne, he got work for a few days with some sheepherders, but that didn’t last long. By October 16, 1890, he turned himself into the authorities.
Pretty much as soon as Charley got booked into the Laramie County jail, his case got a ton of attention.
“It’s all over the newspapers,” Suzi at the archives tells me. “It made national news. You know, it was a big deal at the time. Here’s all sorts of news articles about him.”
We’re talking newspapers from New York to San Francisco to Chicago, all plastered with Charley’s name. And the big question of the day: is Kansas Charley a cold-blooded murderer? Or a kid, subjected to trauma after trauma after trauma, who made a terrible mistake?
Suzi reads me a letter printed in the Cheyenne Daily Leader.
“There’s probably never been confined in the Laramie County Jail a more thorough criminal than Charley Miller, the youth double murderer upon whom some sympathy has been heretofore wasted.”
And the interesting thing is that Charley had public opinion extremely split. This one local paper is like, this kid is a cold-blooded murderer, there’s never been anyone worse to cross state lines.
“He is utterly lacking in moral responsibility. Remorse has never visited him for the murder of his innocent and defenseless companions near Hillsdale. They had money and he wanted it. He therefore killed them in cold blood and with as little compunction as a man would crush a fly which pestered him.”
A lot of people thought his behavior was totally irredeemable. But interestingly, letters were also flooding in taking a totally different stance
“So a lot of these are probably copies from the petition for pardon file,” Suzi says. “You know, where a lot of people are writing in, in his defense.”
Basically, he’s a kid who has experienced tremendous hardship in his short life and that he should be spared.
“Because, up until he was hung, the governor still had the power to commute his sentence or to pardon him completely,” Suzi says.
Letters to the governor came in from across the country
“This one’s from Athens, Missouri,” Suzi says and reads another letter. “A few days since I read in the St. Louis paper, the sentence of Charley Miller, and have here greatly have been greatly troubled over the matter ever since. And my object in writing to you is to ask you to reprieve him, or let the case be taken into the Supreme Court. Oh, don’t you think he is too young to have such a dreadful fate? I know the crime was awful. But this poor boy was wholly blind to the crime and his own poor soul’s condition.”
In the end, though, the petitions for pardon weren’t enough.
“‘Time of discharge, April 22 of 1892, hanged…’ with quite the flourish on the D,” Suzi observes.
The Adolescent State Of Life
At age 17, Charles Miller was executed by the state of Wyoming in a courtyard off the courthouse to an audience of roughly sixty people. They were mostly law enforcement from surrounding jurisdictions there to see the state’s first legal execution. In the streets, more than a thousand people congregated, some climbing lamp posts to get a peek. Two days later he was buried in a Cheyenne cemetery designated for the indigent poor.
And word of Wyoming’s decision to kill Charley made the news across the country from Denver to New York to San Francisco. Government-sanctioned violence wasn’t new to the region. There’d been a lot of it in territorial Wyoming leading to the formation of the state on stolen indigenous land. But Charley’s was the first trial in the newly formed state to result in a death sentence.
And I can’t help but feel like it’s symbolic that the first person to be executed by the state was a teenager. A teenager who had been sent out West to improve his life. And that he was executed despite his traumatic past, and despite people all over the country writing in to raise alarm about a kid who was so young, so clearly in need of help, being put to death.
Martin Woodside says part of Charley’s sentencing comes down to how the country was thinking about kids at the time
“If you go back to the first case of child abuse in New York City, which is also towards the turn of the century, I think it gets reported to the ASPCA.” That’s the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “Because there’s no society for abused children to deal with it, right?”
Back then there wasn’t a lot in place to protect kids. The United States didn’t have child labor laws yet, and lots and lots of kids worked in mines and mills and in farm fields. Until a guy named G Stanley Hall came around.
“G. Stanley Hall is a famous psychologist at that time publishes a two-volume book called Adolescence.”
Hall published his book Adolescence in 1904, 13 years after Kansas Charley was executed. And Hall was the first to frame the time between puberty and the mid-20s as a distinct life stage.
Teenagers as an idea were born.
“The adolescent state of life has long seemed to me one of the most fascinating of all themes, more worthy, perhaps, than anything else in the world of reverence, most inviting study, and in most crying need of service we do not yet understand how to render aright. No age is so responsive to all the best and the wisest adult endeavors. In no psychic soil, too does seed–bad as well as good–strike such deep roots, grow so rankly, or bear fruit so quickly or so surely. To love and feel for and with the young can alone make the teacher love his calling and respect it as supreme. That it may, directly and indirectly, help the young to exploit aright all the possibilities of the years from fourteen to twenty-four.”
Basically, teenagers are not adults. They need some extra help and a lot of understanding. This belief, however, was not applied the same way to all kids.
“Some children are thought of as innocent and some are not, right?” Martin says. “I mean, Robin Bernstein wrote a book called Racial Innocence, which argues strongly that innocence was a category for white children, but not for black children.”
And not for Native American kids who throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were removed from their families and sent involuntarily to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their own languages or to celebrate their own cultures.
When Kansas Charley was sentenced to death, adolescence wasn’t even really a thing. So it’s sad, but it makes a lot of sense what happened to Charley in 1892.
Despite the letters and petitions that flooded into the governor’s office, pleading for Charley’s sentence to be reduced to life in prison, the belief that he should have known better won out. His poor judgment as a teenager was seen as an inherent quality he’d carry into adulthood. He was beyond rehabilitation and deserved to die.
It’s been over a century since Kansas Charley was orphaned by suicide, then taken from his home city, shipped to strangers out West, and abused. Over a century since he learned in a dime novel that he could make it on his own, and that to do that, he needed to be tough. Over a century since he killed two boys in a boxcar, and since he died by hanging at age 17. You’d think that in all that time, Wyoming would have probably learned with the rest of the country about how teenagers are not adults. You’d think we would have looked hard at why Charley did what he did, and how we could have helped him. But have we?
“I mean, 2021 in Wyoming for juvenile justice is 1892. We’re still right where we started in my mind,” says Lauren McLane, a law professor at the University of Wyoming where she also runs a legal clinic that defends people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford a lawyer. Many of her clients have stories reminiscent of what Charley Miller endured as a kid.
“I think trauma can come in all sorts of forms, and every single one of these guys that I’ve represented, you know, every single one of them has some form of trauma: physical, mental or otherwise. So I think trauma is a leading reason of why people do what they do,” she says.
And for Lauren, one person comes immediately to mind when she thinks about the legacy of Kansas Charley, and Wyoming’s prevailing attitude towards trauma and juvenile offenders. A convicted murderer named Donald Davis.
When I think about Kansas Charley, a poor immigrant kid with a messed up life, who committed a terrible act of violence and was hanged for it, I see it in sepia tones. It’s a story of mythology. One that feels plucked from a Western movie or a history book. But as far as how untreated trauma can lead to violence, it feels like the legacy of Kansas Charley is still alive and well today in the stories of guys like Donald Davis.
So I picked up the phone and called him.
“Thank you for calling the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins, Wyoming. If you know your party’s extension, please press one.”
I do interviews over the phone all the time but I have to admit that calling Donald Davis at the Wyoming State Penitentiary made me feel really nervous. He’s been incarcerated for 40 years because he murdered someone. That’s just a scary idea. I remind myself I’m calling to get to know him, not as a murderer but as a human being.
“Hey, so yeah, my name is Tennessee. Nice to meet you. So I was just gonna sort of start with some basic questions like, I actually don’t know that much about your life or who you are. So can you tell me, like, where are you? Where are you from where you grew up?”
“Michigan for the first 14 years of my life,” Donald tells me and his voice is one of an ordinary man. “Then Arizona. Then back to Michigan. Then to Wyoming.”
I read in court documents that when Donald was still a baby his father, who was only 19 years old, drowned. By the time he was two, Donald’s mom remarried a man who struggled with substance use.
“I had a lot of shit that was bad at the same time, you know,” Donald says.
His stepdad would get drunk and verbally and physically abuse Donald. Violence was a constant presence during Donald’s childhood and that made school hard.
“What was going to school like for you?” I ask.
“Torture, just having to sit there at the desk, having to sit there. I couldn’t, you know, in my head, I couldn’t do it. So, I mean, I went other places in my head and wasn’t paying attention to what I would be paying attention to because I couldn’t. “
I know from being a teacher that trauma is a huge factor in how kids develop physically, emotionally, and intellectually, and that continual exposure to violence or threats of violence, can trap kids’ brains in a state of fight, flight or freeze. So when I hear that Donald couldn’t sit still, that he didn’t trust people, that he’d have outbursts and run around his classroom, I see that as anxiety and hyper-vigilance resulting from trauma. That kind of behavior can be disruptive for other students and frustrating for teachers, or worse. I’ve had a student give me a black eye. But ideally, a kid with those symptoms would have a full-time aid to help him get through the school day.
But Donald says instead of support he was punished.
“That was the only response to it,” Donald says. “You know, nobody ever sat me down and asked me about it. When I’ve had a few of the caseworkers or psychologists or whatever the hell they were, when I was younger, to talk to me, and I don’t remember ever any of them ever asking me what the real problem was. Or why I couldn’t sit still. Nobody ever asked me about that.”
The idea that trauma could be driving his disruptive behavior wasn’t really a thing yet. Now we’ve got ACES, or the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, to prove just how devastating childhood trauma can be. That study came out in the late 90s, and it’s still gaining traction. So no wonder Donald’s trauma went untreated in the 1970s. He internalized the abuse at home and the punishment at school and started to believe he was just a bad kid.
“When I say my self-esteem was low, it wasn’t low, it was non-existent,” Donald says.
“What kind of decisions were you making as somebody without any self-esteem?” I ask.
“Well, I think it was just pretty much on the fly. It wasn’t like I thought about anything. I didn’t think anything through. I just did it. There was no thought process involved. I didn’t think anything through.”
He was already feeling lost, when Donald’s family moved from Michigan to Arizona for work. That’s where he started to get into trouble for nonviolent offenses like petty theft, resisting arrest, and stealing a car. And that lands him in juvie in Arizona.
“I mean, it was a joke. You look them up, and you’ll see they’ve got caught in their bullshit.”
And yeah, Donald’s right. Arizona has come under fire several times for their treatment of juvenile offenders. In fact, thanks to Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court established that kids have a right to due process just like anyone else.
In 1964, Gerald Gault, who was just 15 years old, was sent to a state juvenile facility for up to six years after being accused of making an obscene phone call to a neighbor. In their fight to get their son released, the Gault’s had to appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. This was the first time that the Supreme Court established that children prosecuted for delinquency should have the same rights as adults in criminal court; things like the right to an attorney and the right to a full hearing on the merits of the case.
The state continued to face lawsuits for the poor conditions in its youth prisons, until 2004, when the U.S Department of Justice sued the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections. That’s when Arizona started to make a concerted effort to reform juvenile justice.
Now Arizona’s juvenile incarceration rate is well below Wyoming’s. But Donald says when he was in Arizona, over 40 years ago, the conditions were bad and the youth prison system fell short on its duty to educate kids in its custody.
“All the school records I had there mysteriously disappeared.”
That put Donald back two years in school. When his family moved back to Michigan, Donald decided to drop out.
“It was just, like, you know what? Screw it. I’m just, I’m done. I’m 17, I can quit whenever I want. You know, I just didn’t really have a good reason not to.”
“But was there anybody in your life that was, at the time, sort of begging you to stick with school?” I ask. “Or when you made that decision were people like okay?”
“Yeah, they’re just okay, whatever, yeah, good. My mom and dad both quit school, you know, they never finished so….”
So he just walked away from school at 17, a decision he regrets now. And not long after, his stepdad threw him out of the house.
“So I had to go somewhere.”
He’d spent time in Wyoming before when his parents were there looking for work, so he stuck out his thumb and headed back to the Cowboy State. I wondered if it was the myth of the West as a place where you can reinvent yourself that drew Donald. He says it wasn’t that deep.
“There was really no thought process in me coming back. I just woke up one morning and said, ‘well, hell, I’m going to Wyoming’ and I did. I mean, there was really no thought process in it, you know. I look back thinking, I wish there had been because I probably wouldn’t have came.”
In Wyoming, Donald met a 19-year-old named Robert Cotton. According to court documents, on a September day in 1982, Robert and Donald were hanging out, drinking a combination of beer, liquor and fortified wine, and smoking pot. The two of them went for a drive to get more booze, and while they were out picked up a hitchhiker who they decided to rob for cash and drugs. The hitchhiker was an 18-year-old kid making his way from Montana to Denver. Robert and Donald had planned to let the hitchhiker go after robbing him, but somehow that didn’t happen. I know from court records that Donald slit the hitchhiker’s throat but I didn’t ask him why. Honestly, I didn’t want to ask Donald to relive that moment, nor did I want the details of something so violent living in my mind.
“I can’t remember anything that I did when I was out there that I actually thought through,” he says. “I don’t know if that explains anything. But I mean, that’s just the way it feels, you know?”
Donald’s self-esteem was so low that nothing mattered to him anymore, and as a result, someone died. I think about the young hitchhiker and those who loved him. I think about the fear that rippled across the community. I don’t want to lose sight of that, but isn’t Donald a victim too? I mean, the violence he committed is inextricably linked to the harm he’d suffered as a kid, so what happens to that part of the story in a justice system concerned with individual culpability?
The cultural conversation about how to treat kids who cause harm has really changed over the last 40 years, and you can see that in Donald’s case.
A couple days after the murder, Donald was arrested. The police investigate and the prosecutor ends up offering Donald a plea deal.
“The DA pretty much told me, you take this deal or I’m going to kill you. You know, it’s that simple. You’re dead.”
Instead of the death penalty, the prosecutor offered Donald a life sentence without parole for murder, plus 20 to 50 additional years for aggravated robbery. And Donald, who had a public defender, didn’t really get that he could push for his right to a jury trial.
“If I had been maybe a little older, I would have thought that through a little better.”
He was also really worried that if he got the death penalty the heartbreak would just crush his mom.
“She would be dead before they executed me.”
So Donald took the prosecutor’s deal, pled guilty and went to prison indefinitely. He was only 18 and, in his words, was pretty messed up: lacking self-esteem, not caring about himself or others. But he started to open up as he got older, taking classes, journaling on a daily basis, and starting to reflect on the harm he’d done.
“I think the biggest thing is compared from now and then, I think a lot of the change was, just growing up,” he says. “Not just growing up physically, but mentally.”
He spent 30 years in prison, thinking he’d be there till the day he died, until 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama.
And here’s where Donald’s story and the story of how Wyoming treats juvenile offenders starts to diverge from the tragic fate of Kansas Charley. Sort of…
Catching The Court By The Tail
So Miller v. Alabama was part of a series of U.S. supreme court cases between the years 2004 and 2016 that basically did away with harsh punishments like the death penalty and mandatory life without parole for offenders under 18. These cases are like the hard science echoes of the book G. Stanley Hall published back in 1904 about how adolescents are just really, truly different from adults.
“It was really science that finally caught the court by its tail,” Lauren, the Wyoming attorney, says.
Ask any parent of a teenager and they’ll tell you that the adolescent brain is very much a work in progress but now we have the neuroscience and psychology to prove it. So the court found that because young peoples’ brains aren’t fully mature, they’re less culpable and therefore shouldn’t be punished so severely. Until these cases came out, you could execute someone for what they did as a child. But these cases say because young brains aren’t fully developed at 12 or 15 or even 20, that’s not fair.
“Most scientists would say that prefrontal cortex is developed by 30 and you are who you are and we don’t have that same sense with juveniles. So not letting them grow into who they are going to be is inhumane,” Lauren says.
So the person sentenced at 17 is automatically going to be very different by the time they’re 30. It’s not until the prefrontal cortex fully develops, which can happen for some people at 24 and others at 30, that we get better at reasoning, anticipating consequences, planning, impulse control. That science also helped the court see that because the harm caused by juvenile offenders is a product of immaturity that they’re likely to be reformed as they grow up.
These supreme court cases opened a door for Donald. Remember he was sentenced to life without parole, but according to Miller v. Alabama, that’s unconstitutional. So Donald had the right to appeal for parole. But the reality was going to be more difficult.
“I look at Donald Davis’s first Miller hearing, back in 2016, and, you know, I think it was a miseducation of the court.”
Lauren wasn’t sure if Wyoming’s justice system wasn’t up on the science or was reluctant to accept but it was hard to get the court to see Donald as a kid who made a mistake.
“I often will hear, but he was just days away from his 18th birthday, right? So okay, so all of a sudden that brain just snaps into completion at age 18?”
So even though neuroscience debunked the idea that at 18 we magically mature, Lauren says the Johnson County District Court wanted to see it that way.
“That’s frustrating,” Lauren says. “So it’s this old kind of, it’s almost like rhetoric. It’s almost like maybe they even say, ‘no, that’s not true.’ But it’s this status quo sort of way of understanding or way of talking about things that just is heavy here.”
Lauren had to go back and forth with appeals because the court had a hard time accepting that Miller applied to Donald. They saw him as an adult and not a juvenile. And the court was overly focused on the heinousness of the crime. But what the U.S. Supreme Court said is that there are five factors that need to be considered.
“Under Miller, in determining whether or not a life without the possibility of parole sentence is appropriate for a juvenile.”
And one of those factors is the crime, but then the court is supposed to move on to these four other factors that really focus on the child’s background.
“Trauma, if it exists, upbringing, mental health, potential addictions. And then ultimately, you get to the point where you’re assessing reformation and whether that person has the capacity to be reformed or rehabilitated.”
But the court in Wyoming wasn’t actually following what Miller v. Alabama told them to do. So Donald kept appealing until finally, the Wyoming Supreme Court told the lower court, ‘nope, Donald has the right to a Miller hearing where they consider all these factors.’ The result of that, when they really looked at all the factors, is that Donald’s no longer the 17-year-old who made a terrible mistake. He’s sorry. He’s grown up and should be eligible for parole.
“I’m ready to get out of here,” Donald tells me. “My mom’s getting older, I don’t think she’s going to be around much longer, I’d like to get out and do a little bit with her before she goes. You know, get something going on out there because this is just a dead-end, nothing, you know, where I’ve been for almost 40 years now.”
So he’ll get a second chance at life, thanks in part to science and to the perseverance of Lauren and her law students. They’re hopeful that Donald’s case will set legal precedence so that, moving forward, Wyoming’s courts will have to consider brain development and trauma when sentencing juvenile offenders.
But that only changes what happens once kids get in trouble. But what if Donald had never committed murder? What did Donald need that he didn’t get?
So I asked him.
“I’ve talked to a fair number of teenagers in Wyoming who are getting in trouble and my sense is that they’re really feeling the way that you were feeling: worthless, really low self-esteem, people tell me I’m a bad kid and they don’t see me any other way. So I’m just gonna be bad. And I’m curious, what would you tell those kids?”
“The biggest thing I could tell them is that, hey, don’t listen to them dumb asses,” Donald says. “Listen to yourself. Think. Number one, think and figure it out for yourself. Don’t listen to these people that are just all negative. If they’re being negative there’s something wrong with them.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about Donald telling kids to think for themselves when that was so impossible for him. He heard over and over again that he was a bad kid. That negativity came from home, school, the juvenile justice system, and he wasn’t able to tune it out and muscle through. What if he’d found an adult who believed in him? Who made him feel less alone?
“Now, logistically that makes a lot of sense,” he says. “I’d never had that but I think that it makes sense, that it could help. But like I say, I’ve never had that, so I don’t know. I never had anybody. Nobody.”
“And you wouldn’t have known where to find it either?” I ask him.
His reply, “No.”
That doesn’t excuse Donald’s actions but it might help us keep kids from heading down a similar path of destruction.
Learning about ACES, or the adverse childhood experiences survey, helped me understand how high levels of stress during childhood can harm our nervous systems and our immune systems, and even alter the structure of our DNA. It impacts our brains and decision-making and has been linked to poor health outcomes for adults. ACES found the impact of childhood trauma to be so devastating that it’s become a top priority for the Centers for Disease Control. But those researchers have also found that permanent harm is preventable. And one of the CDC’s top recommendations is to connect kids to caring adults and activities that provide a sense of belonging. It’s not rocket science. We’re talking about making sure kids have easy access to things like after-school programs and mentors in their communities.
Lauren McLane says in Washington, where she lived before, the juvenile justice system is starting to shift resources away from punitive measures and towards community programs. But in Wyoming, she says, “we just don’t have that level of programming.”
Some of that has to do with Wyoming’s economic woes and across-the-board budget cuts but Lauren says it’s also cultural.
“I think it’s pull yourself up by your own bootstraps here in Wyoming,” Lauren says. “I mean, I think Wyoming is still in a place where we really expect personal responsibility, regardless of where you come from and your background.”
Lauren’s not the only person I’ve heard this from. Wyoming’s bootstraps mentality plays a huge role in how we deal with troubled kids, and maybe even whether those kids go on to cause harm to others or more often themselves.
But that rugged individualism is at odds with something else that seems so core to Wyoming’s identity: our resiliency as a community. That idea that if you slide off the road in a snowstorm you can count on the kindness of a stranger to help you out.
In the next episode of Cowboy Up, I talk to an alternative high school teacher trying to fill in Wyoming’s gaps for students like Jess. But he says, it’s hard-working against the grain.
“I’ll be more than happy to pull over and help you fix your flat tire. I’m more than happy to do that. But I really don’t want to fix your kid. That’s kind of the attitude.”
But why do we even think about my kid versus your kid? Why isn’t it our kids?
This episode is dedicated in memory of Kareem Kanezi, one of the students Tennessee worked with in New York City.
We’d love to hear about your experience as a teenager. Is there anything you wish the school system would have done differently for you? Make a short voice memo of your memories on your phone and send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We might include them in a future episode.
Cowboy Up art by Eda Uzunlar
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