Killing the seed before it grows

RiShawn Biddle

Expresso, July26 2006


Why was Shawn even in juvenile court? This is just one of the questions being raised by public defender Patricia McMath in the 8-year-old's case, now before the state Court of Appeals. And it should be the central question that everyone, including those working in the juvenile justice system, should be asking themselves.

For all the revelations about the woeful state of Indianapolis' juvenile justice system -- including the scandals of sexual misconduct at the detention center and the lack of fair trials in the courtrooms -- the fact that so many children land in juvenile court for incidents that shouldn't be there remains the most scandalous of all. From Donna (The Star generally doesn't identify alleged juvenile offenders), whose conviction for tossing a snowball through a teacher's car window was profiled in the Juvenile Injustice series last month to the case of Lacy, whose domestic spat with her mother (and her fiancÚ) was discussed on Expresso last month, there are too many episodes of the juvenile court handling issues that are best left to schools and parents, resulting in the lives of youngsters being ruined for life with criminal records -- and possible prison time -- in their futures.  

Such a future is likely being set up for Shawn, who didn't have a criminal record until this past January when he was sentenced to probation by Marion County Superior Court Magistrate Danielle Gregory. As evidenced in a psychiatric report conducted on behalf of the Public Defender's Office obtained by The Star Editorial Board, he doesn't have a criminal profile; an average student who doesn't like to sit still, has a temper and occasionally asks for his mom to be by his side, he's just a typical little boy.

Shawn landed in juvenile court in March 2005, after a day in which he was playing around with Noah, a six-year-old neighbor, around the apartment complex where they lived when Shawn placed a stick on the handle of a door to a shed into which Noah had wandered. Apparently Shawn though, as most kids might that the younger Noah would be able to get out according to a police report obtained by The Star Editorial Board. So he left him there.

When Noah's father couldn't find him a few hours later, he called the Marion County Sheriff, who then found the youngster -- as one would expect, crying and a little cold -- and began combing the neighborhood for Shawn. After finding and questioning him, a detective arrested Shawn and brought him down to the detention center to be booked on charges of what would be felony confinement for an adult.

Any adult who has some memory of their childhood would realize that what happened was typical mischief. Most of us, after all, have done everything from pull the ponytail of a schoolmate to tossing water balloons at cars. Such activities, as in Shawn's case, are deserving of parental discipline. But a mugshot, a drug test and ultimately, a criminal record? Come on.

Shawn's case, in which several continuances were issued before it went to trial in September 2005, didn't have to happen. Juvenile court magistrates could have simply dismissed it as could have the juvenile probation department, on whose word cases usually proceed. Prosecutors could have also simply rejected the matter outright right before the initial hearing, even joining together with the public defender to ask the court for the case's dismissal.

Instead, the case crept along to an apparently foregone conclusion: Shawn was going to get probation -- which until recently, lasted until a child turned 18 -- and be forced to get therapy, which he may have needed, but not for this particular incident. Given that children tend to get into mischief, Shawn would likely end up facing charges for violating probation, which could ultimately lead to a stint in state juvenile prison.

By any reasonable understanding of the juvenile justice system, Shawn was sentenced to a criminal's life for no good reason at all. As Bob Marley would say, he's the victim of a system trying to kill the seeds of a man before he grows.

Judging from McMath's appellate brief, there are plenty of reasons to toss out this case. The sheriff's detective on the case allegedly didn't read Shawn his Miranda rights and advised his mother than he was a suspect before questioning him; Shawn's alleged confession should have been tossed out by Magistrate Gregory. She allowed it anyway. As is, the prosecution didn't have any evidence outside of the detective's testimony because neither Noah nor his father showed up for their deposition hearings.

Even if it were admissible, argues McMath, Shawn's statement doesn't show that he "knowingly or intentionally" confined Noah; all it shows is that Shawn behaved like, well, an eight-year-old boy playing with one of his peers. There should never be anything criminal about behaving like a child when there's nothing about the mischief that rises to criminality.

The three-judge panel has more than enough legal justification to toss out his conviction. While they're at it, they should simply declare to juvenile court judges both in Indianapolis and the rest of the state through a published opinion that it's high time they stop accepting cases in which children are behaving in the horse-playing, teasing, sometimes naughty manner as they will naturally do.

Shawn deserved a spanking from his mother, not a criminal rap sheet. Sadly, he isn't the only one who deserved the former and got far worse.