The town of Cuero, halfway between San Antonio and the Gulf Coast, was small enough that a child’s disappearance would be noticed quickly. In August 1973, a little after dusk, the grandmother of 10-year-old Wendy Adams arrived to pick her up at the pool in the town park. Her clothes were still in a locker. “The child was obedient,” her grandmother later recalled, “and I knew that if she had changed her plans she would have called me.” She alerted the woman behind the park concession stand, who happened to also be the wife of the local police chief. A search began.

Witnesses had seen Adams in the back of a dark blue pickup truck, speeding down the road, screaming for help as her long, blonde hair billowed in the wind. A group of adolescent girls said a 22-year-old cotton mill worker named Jerry Jurek had tried to chase them down in the same truck earlier that day. Late that night, the police picked up Jurek at his parents’ house, and brought him, shoeless and shirtless, to the local jail. Among the arresting officers was Ronnie Adams, the father of the missing girl.

Jurek initially denied involvement, but eventually confessed. He said he’d been drinking and invited Adams to go “riding around” with him. She climbed into his truck and he drove to a bridge just outside of town. “Wendy told me that I shouldn't be drinking, and that I was just like my brother who drinks a lot,” he said in a written confession. “I got mad at her and jerked her off the truck and grabbed Wendy around her throat and choked her to death; she tried to talk to me to get me to stop but I wouldn't listen.” Sheriff’s deputies found her body floating face down in the river below the bridge.

Prosecutors remained suspicious about whether Jurek was telling them the whole truth, and they continued to press him. He gave a second confession. “I did not tell the truth about the conversation I had with Wendy at the river…and I now herein wish to correct that statement,” reads his second confession, using oddly formal language. “I asked her if she had ever had sex before and she said yes. I asked her if she wanted to have sex with me but she said no and started screaming and yelled ‘help’ and ‘please don't kill me.’ So I started choking her.” Jurek was charged with “murder in the course of kidnapping and attempted rape.” Prosecutors decided to seek the death penalty.

This all might have amounted to a straightforward small-town murder case, one of thousands every year resolved through a plea deal or a short trial, and Jurek might have faded into the rising wave of mass incarceration. But one year earlier, the Supreme Court had struck down every death penalty law in the country. State legislators across the U.S. raced to write new laws, and by May 1973, Texas had one on the books. As one of the first death sentences under the new law, Jurek’s case would become a test case, playing a key role in both the nationwide rise of the death penalty and Texas’s place at the center. Since 1972, Texas has carried out more than 500 of the country’s roughly 1,500 executions. The case of Jerry Jurek—and the many what-might-have-beens along his path through the legal system—helps explain why.

Read the full article about the death penalty by Maurice Chammah at The Marshall Project.