Friday, March 6, 2009

Juvenile Justice

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I spent most of my day in a court room.
I was there as a character witness for a 16 year old boy who is being tried for assault with a deadly weapon and armed robbery. He was 15 when the crime was committed and the hearing I was attending was a review before a judge to have the defendant passed back down to the juvenile system.

The young man is about 6’2” and 220lbs. He is very dark skinned and usually wears a huge fake diamond in his ear.
I met him when he joined my church a couple years ago. Today was my first time sitting down to have a conversation with his mother.

The judge prefaced the hearing by stating he had never seen a case quite like this. He had before him the contrast of a young man who not only had a spotless record but a pile of letters vouching for him. These letters, the judge noted, were not from the usual suspects; parents and the little old lady next door, but otherwise independent third parties like teachers, coaches, and church leaders. The record and letters were juxtaposed against the evidence and brutality of the crime.

A lonely man was out walking his dog when a group of youth beat him with a 2x4 and stole his cell phone. After tracking the cell phone usage the police found the young man in question with a group of his friends. The victim pointed out the big one with the earring as the wielder of the weapon and the police claim they found the phone in his possession when he was apprehended.

I have a very hard time believing he did it. He has always been polite, quiet, but not in a silent brooding way, and relaxed. He attended church services and youth events on his own. I was tasked with finding his mother to get adult permission for activities and responsibilities. This was always difficult.

I spent some time in the summer working with him on football skills. I had attended Philadelphia public school football games before and was appalled at the low level of coaching. Not that they were bad coaches but more that there were only two of them. When I played and coached there were always around 12 coaches on a high school staff. Two is no where enough to aspire to a mediocre level of play. This kid had the undeveloped size and coordination to be more than impressive. I have some experience and offered to help. He was a tough case. Why?

No aggression.

I attended his games. I went one on one with him over the summer and always the same issue. No aggression. Combine that with size that outpaced his strength, and he had along way to go before the pro’s came calling. He was a bit of a force as a sophomore simply because the other kids had trouble moving someone his size around. But he never initiated anything. He simply lacked energy, strength, and that mean streak that is condoned and even valued on a football field. I considered him someone that could be a prospect on paper if he hit a weight room, but knew that anyone who met him would know he did not have that edge.

The prosecutor mentioned that even after posting bail and being returned to his mother’s care he had 10 absences from school. He even got suspended from school less than ten days before this hearing. His mother almost cried when explaining to me the suspension was only for possessing a hooded sweatshirt which was in violation of the school’s policy. A zero-tolerance policy. The defense read the letters, pointed out his clean record, and was going on when the judge cut him off.

“I know that in our system you are considered innocent till proven guilty, but I am not the judge who will be hearing this case, so I can say this…” The judge began. He then read aloud a statement from the victim who told in broken English how he lives in constant fear and pain. He does not have dental insurance to repair his broken teeth. His face and jaw are a network of wires and he had lost 30 lbs. since the beating. The judge explained that it was obvious to him that the accused showed one face to all the adults he knew and another on the street. He was granting the motion to pass him back to the juvenile system only because he was so young that he may have a chance at being reformed. He stated that the juvenile system was better prepared to work with the young man.

He then finished by stating that the proper place for him was in detention, revoked his bail, and looked him in the eye and asked “how do you sleep at night?”

With that they took him away, still wearing the tie I had just tied for him, and we all left the courtroom. On the way home his mother explained to me that their cousin knows who really did the beating but refused to snitch. She also told me she was giving the defendant’s room to his little brother’s and cousins.

My wife says I should believe the victim and the physical evidence (possession of the victim’s phone). I know that just because I see someone in one light, I should never assume they are not capable of acting differently. I have trouble seeing this docile and amicable boy swinging a piece of lumber at a stranger, not because I think he is nice, but because I have seen him play football.

But I wasn’t there.

I will be there for the trial. I will write another letter, and I will tell what I know about him. I wish I trusted the system. I wish I trusted my own judgment.


Joshua said...

I am a civil attorney so my criminal justice experience is very limited. However, while waiting for my jury verdict last week I sat in the courtroom and watched sentencing for various criminal defendants. It was disturbing for many reasons. First, the descriptions of the crimes and number or firearms found on the defendants when apprehended was alarming. Second, the defendants were all very well mannered despite the crime associated with the sentence.

Your guy is probably not a hardened criminal that is just putting on an act. However, I think when people are put in certain situations they can do things they would not otherwise be capable of. It sounds like he was involved with a bad crowd, got into a bad situation, and may have turned into a different person than you now see.

All that said, write your letters and give your opinion. The system works best when all evidence and factors are presented and considered. It's not a perfect system but it becomes less perfect when evidence isn't presented.

Unfortunately, there are no winners in these situations. The victim is damaged permanently and the accused will be damaged permanently as well. The only hope is that both heal from the damage, eventually. Pray for both.

Corbie said...

I loved this post. It shows the complexities of these situations and gives credence to both sides of the argument. And it is hard to trust the system. And it is hard to trust our own judgment in these instances. Great story and insight.

Jake said...

I believe that I know this young man and the situation, admittedly, not as well as you though. My father worked in law enforcement for most of my life growing up, so I have heard plenty of stories and seen many different acts of crime and violence. i have also been around my fair share of youth, both well mannered ones who are seemingly never in trouble, and troubled ones who never seem to find their way out. I love to work with the youth, particularly young men competing in sports. I have seen bad people do great things, and I have seen good people do horrible things. I have also seen people punished severely for things they had no part in. these types of situations can extremely difficult when it comes to determining the truth. I have to say, that everything in my soul wants to believe this young man did not commit this crime, and I must also admit that prejudice by the judge due to where the boy is from, the type of violent crime committed, the family situation of the boy, and the judges previous experiences are very likely. How i wish I could put my arm around every young man and teach him the value of hard work and honesty, the specialness of girls and women, and the potential they each have to do something great. I agree with you Dalyn in a point that you didn't state but alluded to...... I believe that the involvement of more dedicated men volunteering in their communities and schools to provide strong examples to these young men would help to deter many of these sorts of problems. I think we all could do more to guide the youth and provide them with a sense of hope, confidence, and respect.

Claudia said...

What I am struck by is that you are so very blessed to be able to see the best in the kids that you know and work with (as are the kids). Good for you for believing in them.

Brandon said...

Nice art work, I really like it! I bet it is really great in person. I checked out the pant website, and I really like the pants but could never spend a hundred bucks on a pair of pant, I try to keep it cheap, it is better on the karma.

Jenna said...

What a sad situation. Last year we were asked to write a letter of recommendation for a friend. We only knew one side of the story & had a difficult time wholeheartedly endorsing a situation when we didn't know the rest of the picture. I guess it would have been easier if we knew both parties well - for instance, if you knew the victim, trusted his judgment & his memory, it would be easy to say, "Wow, surprising but sad." Without really knowing or being there, it would be difficult to make the call.

[Emeritus] said...

I don't know what/who to believe either but you know him best so I'm hoping with you that he's innocent. I just said a little prayer that justice is served to whomever it should be served to.

SOILA. said...

Very touching story on both the victim and defendant's side. I can see one being conflicted as to who to believe. I pray that justice will be served.

"I cant sayOn the way home his mother explained to me that their cousin knows who really did the beating but refused to snitch."

You know, this really saddens me. I hate the whole "No snitching" deal especially since if people just spoke up some innocent people wouldn't be behind bars.

Citizen Ojo said...

When I was in Philly during the summer for a family reunion. I went into a pizza joint and the guy behind the counter had a Don't Snitch Shirt on. Needless to say I made sure I was out of Philly when it turned dark. Thanks for letting me know what to expect...

uglyblackjohn said...

This situation sucks all around.
Everyone involved has seen the Eddie Haskill tactic before.
But if the kid is innocent - he may be stuck because he attempting to play by two sets of rules (street - civilized society).

Anonymous said...

Oh Sweet, sweet Dalyn. I love your optimism. But that kid did it.
For those just hoping justice will be served. Can I tell you that I served on a Philly jury where the guy was guilty but people didn't have the guts to put him away. They said things like they thought he was guilty but was worried about how much time he would get. One even said well if he's guilty- he'll get what he deserves-eventually.
I was like yes, he will-from us! That's why he's being tried by a jury. It's been delegated. An anvil isn't waiting atop a building ledge to fall and flatten him for justice. This is Amercia people.

Jake said...

I have got to argue against "Anonymous" a bit. I hate crime, and can't tolerate people who participate in it, particularly violent crimes and senseless ones at that, but I would much rather have a criminal go free than to have an innocent person put in prison. Especially when it comes to a young man. I think that this young man needs the chance to experience life, and hopefully improve his life....... I don't see prison providing him with rehabilitation, guilty or not. I think community service programs or youth educational programs are much more effective when it comes to young people, including criminal youth. Especially in Philly, these young men need every opportunity they can get, not have those opportunities taken away.

brohammas said...

Jake, I suggest you be careful in arguing with Anonymous... she has very sharp elbows. i should know, I'm married to her.

Sweet sweet anonymous, don't assume guilt just because I assume otherwise. This may usually be accurate when listening to most of my opinions. like who makes the best cheesesteak (the place at Lehigh and Kensington), or if Everybody Loves Raymond is or is not funny.
You and I both know kids who "did it" and you know I have never had trouble believing their guilt. I'm not new to this. but this is different... somehow.

We'll see tomorrow when the actual trial begins.

colorific said...

I always try to look for the blessing in these situations. I think that this is one of those "Trust your insides" lessons for everyone ... the perpetrators, the victim(s), and all of us watching from the outside. I wish the best for the victim(s) and the perpetrators. I hope that they get what they need on all levels.

Thanks for telling the story.

- a friend of Lyric's

Jenna said...

So, what happened at trial? My guess is that he was convicted.