The picture of guilt? (From the juvenile injustice files)

RiShawn Biddle

Expresso, July 7, 2006

Did Zuleyma molest her three-month-old son? This question faced state Court of Appeals Judge Michael Barnes and his colleagues back in 2002 when public defender Janice Stevens asked them to overturn the 16-year-old's conviction.

As far as Marion County Superior Court Magistrate Christopher Piazza was concerned, there was "clear evidence" that the Northwest High student (The Star generally doesn't identify accused juveniles) molested her three-month-old son. In a transcript of the trial obtained by The Star Editorial Board, he declared that "if somebody looks at the picture and concludes that [Zuleyma] is kissing the baby's stomach, from that photograph, then I would think that person needs to have his eyes examined."

But it wasn't clear to the Marion County branch of what is now the state Department of Child Services, which didn't find any evidence that Zuleyma molested her son. It not only asked Piazza to dismiss the case, but any recommendations of sex offender therapy "could have a negative impact on her and wouldn't be warranted."

Nor did the Lisa Machado, the therapist who treated Zuleyma after her arrest, find any evidence that Zuleyma was a molester. Wrote Machado in a letter obtained by The Star Editorial Board: "There does not appear to be any pattern of deviant thoughts or sexual urges."

Despite three intense rounds of courtroom interrogation by then-Deputy Prosecutor Scott Stowers* (now a juvenile court magistrate) that appeared to border on harassment, Zuleyma's younger sister Nancy, who shot the photo in question, wouldn't accuse her sister of molestation. She insisted that Zuleyma merely kissed the belly of the naked child.

Apparently Piazza's mind was made up -- and beyond persuasion. On June 18, he found Zuleyma guilty, and sentenced her to probation and suspended commitment to state juvenile prison one month later. He also ordered that she only meet with her son during supervised visits.

But what did the photo show? Did it show Zuleyma molesting her son? For Barnes and the panel to make their decision, they had to look at the photo, something yours truly would do five years later.

And the answer? There was a picture of a young woman, kissing her son's belly. And nothing more.

No oral copulation as alleged by the prosecution. No molestation, as Piazza had found. Nothing that suggested that a crime took place.

"[The photo] plainly does not show [Zulyema] molesting her son by placing her mouth on or "kissing" his genitals," wrote Barnes in the unanimous -- and unpublished -- decision. "The evidence is insufficient." Zuleyma's conviction was overturned.

The fact that Barnes and his fellow judges had to make that decision in the first place speaks volumes about Marion County's -- and Indiana's juvenile justice system. And some of those words aren't exactly fit for polite company.

*Note: The piece incorrectly identified the prosecutor on the case as Peter Haughan, who was actually supervising attorney for the Public Defender Agency's Justice Division. Scott Stowers, who later became a juvenile court magistrate, was the prosecutor handling the case. My apologies.