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I am a Killer: Justin Dickens

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Dallas Moore was a charismatic and ruggedly handsome man, with long dark hair and a big bushy beard. Tall, tough and able to charm the birds from the trees, to fourteen year-old street kid Justin Wiley ‘Chicken’ Dickens, he quickly became everything: a friend, a hero, even a father of sorts.

The reality, though? Dallas Moore was a mean son of a bitch. Manipulative and conniving, he was a user of people and a strung-out waster. Despite his weak protestations, Moore liked to think of himself as a kind of TexanCharlie Manson figure. Instead of masterminding some of America’s most infamous ever crimes however, all Moore ever really did was boss some kids about, slap some women around and shoot up cocaine in his beat-up old trailer in Amarillo, Texas.

Dickens might have looked up to Moore, but he also knew that he was a dangerous man to cross. So when he found himself reluctantly being talked into helping Moore’s kindly but strung-out wife Martha try to get away with stealing an ounce of coke from him some three years later, the kid knew getting caught would mean trouble. He just didn’t realise how much trouble…

Suffice to say, Martha and Dickens didn’t get away with their little stunt for very long. Despite Martha dosing her husband up with Valium, some hours later Dallas Moore was awake and - quite literally - gunning for them. He caught up with the now-seventeen year-old kid, bust his nose and threatened his life.

Now. Here’s where things get a little murky…

Dickens claims that Dallas Moore demanded he take his ski mask, find a gun and recoup the money owed for the missing drugs. Whereas Moore claims he merely told Dickens to beat it and never show his face again. The truth, as ever, isn’t clear.

Several hours later, Dickens and an accomplice pulled up into the parking lot of the Mockingbird Pawn & Jewellery Store on the south side of town. Hands trembling, Dickens was buzzed in and he immediately (and rather clumsily) attempted to rob the place. Instantly the heist went wrong. Dickens was noClyde Burrows, after all. He wasn’t even Clyde the orangutan from Every Which Way But Loose.

In the store was the owner, Jim Jacobs and high school teacher Francis ‘Allen’ Carter, who used to deal in second-hand jewellery as a weekend sideline. As with most major crimes, a few versions of what happened next exist. All we know for certain is that Dickens discharged his weapon and Carter ended up dead. Jacobs escaped, as did Dickens. The next day the Amarillo Police Department arrested Justin Wiley Dickens. It was to be his last day of freedom.

Dickens’ defence attorney put a seemingly compelling testimony to the court and jury that appeared to explain the circumstances of the killing. Dickens, it was told to the court, had no intention of using the firearm, but had discharged it accidentally during a struggle with Carter. He claims that his victim rushed him and attempted to wrestle the gun away from him. When the gun went off. And that he was only there on fear of being killed by Dallas Moore, anyway

That was one side of the story, anyway.

Leading up the prosecution’s case against Dickens was Randall County Criminal District Attorney James Farren. Now, working as DA, it was Farren’s job to see the guilty party go down for his crime. There were a few options open on how he could proceed with the case, but Farren wanted to go in hard. Dickens he claims, was a violent and unremorseful killer. One guilty of capital murder. Dickens shot at Mr. Carter from distance, deliberately killing him. That was the prosecution’s argument and it was convincing. Justin Dickens was found guilty of the capital murder charge and sentenced to death.

Does District Attorney Farren truly believe that the strung-out 17 year-old street kid was a stone-cold killer capable of ruthless, premeditated and unprovoked murder? Or has he had to convince himself of that to back up the case he built up? Holding up jewellery stores with loaded weapons isn’t the kind of thing ‘nice guys’ do, certainly. But the picture James Farren paints is one of a ‘swaggering 5’3” wannabe gangster with a Napoleon Complex’. Which seems quite at odds with the Justin Dickens that speaks so softly and seemingly remorsefully about his crime now. But then criminals aren’t always known for their honesty, are they…?

From a legal perspective, this case is interesting mostly in the context of intent. Did Dickens mean to kill Allen Carter? Was he malicious in purpose? Did he fire a bullet through the man’s hand and up into his head out of a murderous spite? Or was it just a stupid mistake? A stupid mistake made by a panicking young teenager, hooked on drugs pushed onto him by a scheming older man who’d had instilled the fear of God into him?

From a human perspective, though? The truly fascinating aspect of Justin Dickens’ crime comes in the shape of the two biggest non-Justin Dickens-shaped players involved. Raised by a drug addict mother, his father absent, Dickens saw Dallas Moore as a father figure. Three years in Moore’s world and he’d turned into a drug-addicted armed robber who killed a man in jewellery stores. The man he killed? Allen Carter? Well, he was just about the finest father figure a lost kid could want…

The news of Allen Carter’s death shocked his colleagues. They couldn’t believe their workmate and friend was the kind of man who’d rush an armed man with a gun. He was a gentle soul, a caring man and an excellent teacher. He was no ordinary school teacher, though. Allen didn’t just clock in and clock out. Teaching was a true vocation for him. His specialty and focus? Underprivileged kids. He would take them under his wing and guide through the trials of high school. Allen Carter the English teacher had a reputation as a teacher who never gave up on a child, no matter how far off the track they’d strayed.

That’s not to say that he was a woolly character, though. Sure, he had a heart of gold and an almost unlimited supply of empathy and patience. But Carter was no pushover. The man was a decorated Vietnam veteran. A willing father figure to many an Amarillo kid, ‘Mr. Carter’ could perhaps - under different circumstances - have helped turn Justin Wiley Dickens wayward young life around. The two of did, of course, meet. But in entirely the wrong situation.

Justin Dickens was guilty of causing Allen’s death, he’s never denied that. Was it murder, though? Was it a callous and brutal act? The state of Texas said so and he landed himself on Death Row. A decade later his sentence was commuted to Life, with a minimum of forty years to be served. The kid who feared for his life and shot a man in a botched robbery when he was seventeen now won’t be eligible for parole under the year 2034.

Still, it’s better than lethal injection.

When you consider the story of Justin Dickens, you just can’t help but wonder how his life might have turned out had, at the age of fourteen, he had met Allen Carter and not Dallas Moore...

Maybe in a parallel universe he did and there he’s a successful, productive and happy member of society. But in this universe? He’s rotting in jail, a killer. And all that’s left of Mr. Carter is a memorial tree outside his old school.

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