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Broken: Lessons from a convicted teen killer's past

Posted: 6:04 PM, Nov 14, 2019
Updated: 2019-11-26 22:26:39-05
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Andrew Jefferson Boyhood Photo.PNG

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — What turns a troubled kid into a hardened criminal and and then a repeat offender?

Perhaps more importantly, how do you stop it from happening?

Andrew Jefferson hopes people can find answers in his story.

When he was just 13, Jefferson was arrested for murder and, three years later, he'd committed another murder.

Now he's back behind bars again.

Jefferson recently sat down for a rare prison interview at the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center because he said he wants to save other kids from going down the same path he did.

He hopes lessons from his past might be used to fix a broken system.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "It doesn't sound like you have a whole lot of hope."

"I don't," he answered, "just cause of what I've been through."

Jefferson first made news back in 1994 when he was just 13.

At the time, he was the youngest person ever to be tried as an adult in Middle Tennessee.

The charges were later dropped, but when he was 17, he was convicted of another murder.

Related: The view from inside a broken system

We first talked with Jefferson in prison in 2003.

He told us then, "Is anybody sorry for my being here? Ain't nobody sorry for that. I'm just another throwed away child."

His outlook on life at the time was rough and raw.

"You know when you being brought up in like poverty the way I did, there's no way, no way around that," Jefferson explained.

He added, "I didn't grow up like everybody else. My responsibilities came at a young age because of what I didn't have and what I was deprived from. So I chose to have what I couldn't afford."

Sixteen years later, Jefferson is now 38 and back in prison, this time on drug and weapons charges.

He reflected on where he's been and how he got where he is now.

"Because where we come from, it's not easy at all. It's not easy at all - trying to make it out of that environment and make it to be somebody in life," Jefferson said.

And that environment he grew up in was a tough one.

"Only thing they got to say on the news about the youth or the environment that we come from is another person was shot, another person was killed. That's the only thing you hear about."

Growing up in that environment, he said, you do whatever you have to to survive.

"You have to adapt to your surroundings," Jefferson said.

"So if these kids being brought up in projects and neighborhoods that's out of control, how do you think they're going to adapt? Are they going to walk out their door everyday and go to school and walk past the things that's going on? Half the kids that's in the neighborhood, they being raised and tooken (sic) care of, the neat pair of shoes on their feet probably came from the guy that's on the corner selling drugs."

For Jefferson, that guy on the corner was a big influence.

His mother was in and out of jail and then suddenly died.

"She tried. She tried her best. Even though she had her faults and her downfalls, my mother, she really loved us and she tried. It was just she was stuck in that environment herself. She couldn't get out herself no matter how many jobs she tried to work. No matter what she tried to do to support us, she was stuck in the same environment with us - living in the projects," Jefferson recalled.

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His father, Jefferson told us, was shot to death during a robbery.

That left his grandmother, Dorothy Jefferson, to raise him.

And younger brother Timothy followed in Andrew's footsteps.

But, like Andrew, Timothy was convicted of murder when he was a teen for the brutal killing of a store clerk during a holdup.

NewsChannel 5 also interviewed Timothy Jefferson in 2003.

We asked him then about the crime, "Do you remember much of it?"

"Not really. I was high and drunk," Timothy told us.

Timothy was sentenced to 40 years behind bars.

"I really love my little brother and this is not a place for him. This is not a place for him," Andrew said during our recent interview.

He hadn't seen his brother since just before the market murder.

But just days before our interview, Andrew was moved to the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, the same prison as Timothy.

"This was the first time you'd seen him in how long? NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.

"In 20 years," Jefferson answered.

"What was that like? we wondered.

"I was very happy," Jefferson said, adding, "Once we stepped in front of each other, we immediately knew who each other were - and we just embraced and it was a happy moment."

Before the interview, Jefferson wrote to us and shared his concerns about how little had changed since we first interviewed him 16 years ago, writing, "The same issues is still issues. It's amazen (sic) how the system can't resolve such problems, especially with the youth."

"You can't just lock 'em up and throw 'em back out, lock 'em up and throw 'em back out. You can't do that," he said during the interview.

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Jefferson said the system needs to change.

And back when he was arrested at 13, the juvenile court prosecutor at the time, Jim Todd, was calling for the same thing.

"Hopefully, the system will change and offer consequences for juveniles who break the law early to teach them that there are consequences for their actions," Todd told reporters at the time.

But Jefferson said that kind of change won't work.

"It ain't that I knew the consequences. It was probably more that I didn't care about the consequences. It's just I'm young. I mean, they ain't going to give me the death sentence for stealing a car."

Jefferson said he started selling drugs when he was just 11 or 12. He was also carrying guns, stealing cars, and, getting arrested.

"What do you remember about it?" we asked.

"Just going to juvenile and sitting in there for a minute and getting out," Jefferson recalled.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "What if they had locked you up for a longer period of time? Would you have cared? Would that have made a difference?"

"Being young, probably not. Probably not," Jefferson replied.

Instead, Jefferson believes kids need something other than jail and something other than the streets where they get in trouble.

"Don't sentence them to all of these, to being incarcerated. Sentence them, find out what they want to do in life - what sports they like to be involved in - and sentence them to a program, " he suggested.

He went on to explain his idea, saying, "Okay, he loves to play baseball, let's try to get him, let's sentence him to six months on the baseball team, this youth baseball team - and see how he do with this activity in his life while all of his time won't be spent running around in the neighborhood and stuff like that."

We asked, "You think that would have kept you out of so much trouble even as tough as you were?"

"Yeah, I believe it would have. I believe it would have. But all I knew is where I come from. That's all I knew," he said.

Jim Todd told NewsChannel 5 Investigates, "The environment they came from is a rough environment. It's not their fault that they were born into it."

The former juvenile prosecutor, who is now in private practice, agrees that the system needs to do more to stop the cycle of crime and violence that kids like Andrew Jefferson get swept up in and, later in life, find they can't escape from.

"Sure it's going to cost a lot of money to fix the juvenile justice system," Todd said.

"But if anybody goes back and goes to the trouble to figure out how much we're spending to incarcerate these juveniles we're failing on, I guarantee we're saving money in the long run."

Todd said we can either pay now or wind up paying later.

The challenge though, he added, is convincing the state to spend the money.

"It's so frustrating that we don't, that the state legislature or the governor or whoever, doesn't consider this a priority because of the lives you're losing in the juvenile system, the juveniles themselves, and the lives that you're losing, the victims," Todd said in frustration.

Jefferson explained, "You don't grow up wanting to break the law and murder people and rob people or sell drugs. You don't come out the womb with that mind frame. You being, as you grow, you're being taught these things."

The inmate said not a lot has changed where he came from - and he believes it's going to take more than just changing the system, but changing these neighborhoods, to change lives.

"If you know that all of the trouble is coming out of these communities, come up with something for these communities to make these communities as a whole feel like there's hope for the community," Jefferson suggested.

"If the community feel like there ain't no hope, then ain't nobody going to try."

Jefferson is not due to be released for another 25 years.

He'll be 63.