A story in last week’s alternative newspaper HoustonPress about a mother’s quest to keep her son’s killer behind bars paints a lurid picture of Huntsville-based prison chaplain, Linda Hill-Smith.
Hill-Smith still hopes to see the inmate she claims is fully rehabilitated released on parole.
Titled “Montrose Murder,” the story, available at the weekly’s website at http://www.houstonpress.com, describes Nancy Rodriguez’s fight to prevent the parole of Jon Buice, convicted in the 1991 stabbing death of her gay son, Paul Broussard, 27, outside a Montrose bar.
Though Buice committed the crime with nine others, his knife blows were determined to be the cause of Broussard’s death. Therefore, he received the harshest sentence of the men involved. Sentenced to 45 years, he has been up for parole several times and is on a yearly review schedule now, an indicator that the parole board believes he is nearly ready for release.
Rodriguez has found ammo in her fight to keep Buice locked up — a letter from one of Buice’s fellow inmates describing Buice’s alleged hate-filled brag sessions about the crime and evidence that a female Texas Department of Criminal Justice chaplain at Buice’s prison had been having an improper relationship with him, according to HoustonPress. The inmate letter describes Buice’s true nature in contradiction to the image of the inmate touted by activists like Ray Hill, host of “The Prison Show” on Houston community radio and advocates such as Linda Hill-Smith of Huntsville, formerly a chaplain at the TDCJ Wynne Unit and a former Huntsville Girl Scout troop leader.
TDCJ secretly videotaped counseling sessions and other meetings between Hill-Smith after officials there received complaints from staff about an inappropriate relationship between the chaplain and Buice. The HoustonPress article describes the relationship as sexual — a conclusion that TDCJ did not confirm and with which Hill-Smith’s attorney adamantly disagrees.
Whatever the case, TDCJ officials recommended terminating Hill-Smith in March, in part because they had evidence that some sort of inappropriate relationship existed. Since the incident with Hill-Smith, Buice has been transferred from the Wynne Unit to the Wallace Unit in Colorado City.
Hill-Smith has retained Houston law firm Butler and Harris to represent her after she contested her termination. Despite third-party mediation, TDCJ upheld its decision to fire Hill-Smith, according to TDCJ director of public information Michelle Lyons.
Attorney Paul Harris said his client chose not to comment for the HoustonPress story because she feared it would affect Buice’s chances for parole.
In addition to her work as chaplain, Hill-Smith has been a longtime leader of Girl Scout Troop 8093 in Huntsville. She served in that role as recently as September, and wrote an article for The Huntsville Item that month about a trip the troop took to Hospitality House, a facility where family members of the incarcerated can stay while visiting inmate relatives or friends if they don’t have money for hotel rooms.
Hill-Smith is no longer a troop leader, but Beth Shea, vice president of the San Jacinto Council of the Girl Scouts (of which Huntsville is a member), would not comment as to why or when the separation occurred.
Before her termination from the Wynne Unit, the TDCJ Office of Inspector General had installed “nanny cams” in Hill-Smith’s office and found several instances in which Hill-Smith violated TDCJ policy.
“There was an investigation conducted in her unit and the administration was made aware of what was found,” Lyons said. “It is within their purview to conduct surveillance on the subject of an investigation.”
TDCJ officials said the relationship between Hill-Smith and Buice was inappropriate, but Hill-Smith’s attorney calls the relationship between the two “amazing” in its compassion.
“There were a number of instances where she didn’t follow policy and she established an inappropriate relationship with that offender,” Lyons said. “There was not any direct evidence, and I’ve looked through the disciplinary transcripts, but the relationship between (Hill-Smith) and Buice was definitely inappropriate. There was a familiarity there that was inappropriate.”
Lyons said it’s important to note that not every “inappropriate” relationship is sexual in nature, but Hill-Smith engaged in behavior outside the purview of her position as chaplain, such as visiting Buice’s father at his home.
“Other inmates reported this relationship and they believed something inappropriate was going on,” Lyons said. “Other officers saw this behavior going on.”
Harris admitted his client did have a relationship with Buice, but he said the interaction between the two was not inappropriate or sexual in nature.
“She was a professional chaplain,” he said. “It was her job to go in and help these offenders find a way to rehabilitate themselves. She took to it like a compassionate Christian.”
Harris said Buice’s desire to redeem himself impressed Hill-Smith.
“She was particularly impressed by the transformation of Mr. Buice. He did everything prison authorities ever asked him to do. He did everything right, and yet every time his parole comes up, something comes out against him.”
One of the last things to happen between Hill-Smith and Buice is also one of the most hotly contested. Surveillance captured a counseling session between the two that both TDCJ and Harris agree was intense. It’s over the interpretation of the dialogue between chaplain and offender that they disagree.
On Feb. 21, the two met in Hill-Smith’s office and began talking about Hill-Smith’s visit to Buice’s father. Hill-Smith begins to cry and tells Buice his father has never experienced unconditional love. Several minutes into the conversation, Buice turns the conversation to his possible parole.
“So where does this lead to?” he says. “I see you on the outside. I’m gonna see you on the outside. But where does it go from here?”
Hill-Smith responded, “Where do you want it to go? I know exactly what you mean. God puts people in our life for a reason. I don’t know. My life is always full of stress and anxiety. But I sit down with you, and I am just calm. I can be stressed out here, and you could walk in the door and I’m calm.”
She then drew comparisons to his incarceration in 1991 and her employment at the Wynne Unit in 1991 and asked why they’ve found themselves at the Wynne Unit together for the past 10 years.
“And I’m close to retirement, and you’re close to going home,” she tells Buice. “I think it’s funny. Is that coincidence? Is that God’s plan? I don’t know.” Following this conversation, Buice and Hill-Smith embrace.
Harris calls the exchange between the two “amazing,” and argues that it doesn’t point to an inappropriate relationship.
“Did she give him a hug? Yes. It’s a compassionate thing to do,” he said. “This was a very intense personal counseling session where he was opening up his soul to her about his remorse and hopes for the future and she was acknowledging what he was sharing with her. It’s not something sick, it’s amazing.”
Because Hill-Smith was not aware of the surveillance of her office, Harris said, her actions were taken out of context.
“Without telling anybody, the prison installed video cameras in her office — a place where she gives religious counseling to prisoners. It’s not totally clear they had the legal authority to do that. They started videotaping her every move, and they went back and picked out things they thought they could get her in trouble for.”
Lyons said OIG cameras captured more than an inappropriate relationship with Buice. Hill-Smith was allowing offenders to make personal, unmonitored phone calls from her office and also brought in food for offenders for a Super Bowl party.
“She was allowing offenders to make phone calls from her office and that circumvents policies we have in place. It’s a big security breach,” Lyons said. “We have an offender phone system set up so the offenders can only call people on their visitation list who sign up to receive calls. The calls are monitored. She allowed inmates to make phone calls from her office and those phone calls were not monitored. That is a security concern.”
There is no question of whether Hill-Smith allowed offenders the use of her phone, but according to her attorney, she did so as a reward.
“Not only is it within her job to grant phone calls, she feels it serves counseling purposes,” he said. “She used phone calls to family as a reward and that’s no different from any prison official. Other (correctional officers) grant them phone calls.”
Lyons disputes this claim and says granting unmonitored phone calls to inmates can be dangerous, which is why the offender call system is in place. Without monitoring, offenders could call victims, Lyons said.
Harris said that as her lawyer and her friend, he can’t believe the picture the HoustonPress story paints of Hill-Smith.
“Anybody who has ever met Linda Hill knows this is garbage,” he said. “She has the most amazing depth of compassion of anybody I’ve ever met. The accusations against her have been taken completely out of context.”
“A lot of the actions against her were unfounded or blown out of proportion,” he said. “A TDCJ spokesperson is going to give it a TDCJ spin, but of course there’s a whole different perspective out there. Chaplain Hill stands by her actions, and she knows she did nothing wrong — nothing inappropriate.”
Lyons said TDCJ stands by its decision to terminate Hill-Smith’s employment.