June 20, 2006

Why didn't Samuel get his trial? (From the juvenile injustice files) (UPDATED)

RiShawn Biddle

Expresso, June 20, 2006

Why won't the juvenile court proceed with Samuel's trial? Or release him from detention? Those were the questions, posed to the state Supreme Court in November of 1998 by his public defender, Daniel Schroeder, which would show how for children in Marion County, juvenile justice was -- and still is -- anything but.

Three months earlier, the then-16-year-old Delaware native -- the Star doesn't identify accused juveniles -- who according to a report obtained by the Star Editorial Board, essentially ran away from home to Indianapolis that January so he could live with 21-year-old woman he met online, when he was arrested and brought to the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center for driving without a drivers license and under-aged drinking. A month later, the case was bargained down. All that was needed was for Magistrate Geoffrey Gaither to either accept the deal or toss it out a month later.

Then the waiting game began. Gaither, who may or may not have allegedly accepted the deal in September, according to a brief obtained by the Star Editorial Board, issued continuances five different times. None of them were requested by the prosecution or by Schroeder. By November, Gaither rejected the plea and set the case for a pretrial hearing to take place a month later, in December.

By that time, Samuel had been detained for 70 days. Under state law, a juvenile cannot be held for more than 24 hours on an offense that would otherwise be legal as a minor and cannot be held for that long on a misdemeanor unless he is a danger to himself or the community. Meanwhile a juvenile court trial is supposed to be held within 20 days.

When Schroeder asked Gaither to release Samuel, Gaither rejected it, then recused himself from the case, handing it over to another magistrate, Clark Rogers (now a Superior Court judge). Schroeder then filed a motion with then-Superior Court Judge James Payne, the overlord of the juvenile court, demanding Samuel's release. Not only did Payne reject that first motion, but then rejected Schroeder's demand for Payne to reconsider without explanation. When Schroeder filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus, that is, to demand a decision whether Samuel was imprisoned unlawfully by the juvenile court, neither Judge Payne nor Gaither bothered to schedule a hearing as required under law.

That's what led Schroeder to petition the five wise men for either Payne to give Samuel his trial or release him from the detention center.

Why did Payne and the court delay hearing the case? Blame it on Samuel was the answer Payne supplied in response to Schroeder's brief. Since the phone number Samuel supplied to probation officers so they could locate his mother in Delaware was disconnected, "no responsible adult" could either be located by the court either there or in Indianapolis. When Samuel agreed to the plea agreement that was later rejected by Gaither, he essentially agreed to be remain in the detention center until sentencing.

But what about the continuances? Payne claimed in the brief the delays came up in part because probation officials -- who work for the juvenile court -- hadn't prepared a pre-dispositional report neeed to proceed with the case. All of that, along with the juvenile court's mandate to "engage in a process that strengthens family relations," meant that "no solution was in sight." So the court had to continue detaining Samuel.

None of those arguments explained why the court, having rejected the plea bargain, proceed with Samuel's trial. Which at the end, was what Justice Brent Dickson (then acting as chief justice in the place of Randall Shepard), and his three colleagues were really concerned about. On November 24, the state high court, in a 3-1 ruling, ordered Payne to either hold the trial by December 4 or release Samuel. He was ultimately released and charges were dropped in exchange for him returning to Delaware -- and proving it by sending back a letter.

Payne shouldn't have been surprised by the ruling. Earlier that year, the state Supreme Court unanimously found in the case of W.A. that the juvenile court wrongly denied that juvenile's request for a speedy trial under state law; the juvenile court was ordered to get to stepping on the matter.