Standing against injustice

The debate regarding the treatment of youth in the United States criminal justice system is heating up. I predict that 2013 will be a year of change and progress when it comes to juvenile justice issues. Over the last few months alone I have seen more people rising to the cause then I have observed in years. I am dedicating this post to pictures from three separate rallies that were hosted on behalf of teenagers facing injustice in various forms.

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Blake Layman
Rally Location: Elkhart, Indiana Prosecutor’s Office
Date: April 3, 2013
Case summary:

Blake and four other teenagers were charged with felony murder after breaking into a home they believed was unoccupied. Upon entering the home, the owner got a gun and fired shots at the group as they tried to escape. He shot two of them, fatally injuring one. Instead of charging the surviving teens with the crime they actually committed, Prosecutor Curtis Hill charged all of them with felony murder. One of the teens has already accepted a plea for 45 years in prison.

Again, these teens did not murder their friend. They did not shoot him, nor did they ever imagine he would die. However, if the prosecutor goes through with the felony murder charges and obtains convictions these teenagers will spend all or most of their lives in prison.

On April 3rd, Blake’s family held a rally on his behalf.

Friends, family, and other supporters rallied against felony murder charges involving four teenagers.

Friends, family, and other supporters rallied against felony murder charges involving four teenagers.

Felony murder is not the appropriate charge in this case. Blake's family and friends refuse to allow him to suffer this injustice silently.

Felony murder is not the appropriate charge in this case. Blake’s family and friends refuse to allow him to suffer this injustice silently.

The Elkhart Truth printed a story about the rally, with additional pictures here.

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Josh Young
Rally Location: Louisville, Kentucky courthouse
Date: April 2, 2013
Case summary:

Josh Young is set to stand trial this summer in connection with the murder of his younger step-brother, Trey Zwicker. Though the prosecution has still not presented physical evidence, within the case’s discovery files, connecting Josh to the murder, the prosecutor is moving forward with the charges. It is important to note that Josh’s own father – Trey’s step-father – has since admitted to committing the murder and to manipulating others into throwing his own son under the bus.

Many of Josh’s friends and family believe he is innocent of the charges. This includes his former foster mom, Susan Stoneburner, who firmly believes in the teen’s innocence. In response to the judge’s decision to delay Josh’s trial for another couple of months, a group of Josh’s supporters took to the streets near the courthouse to express their distastel. Though the event was somewhat impromptu, it sent a strong message.

Those who believe in Josh will not give up this fight.

Friends, family, and other supporters rallied in front of the court to express their belief in Josh's innocence.

Friends, family, and other supporters rallied in front of the court to express their belief in Josh’s innocence.

Those who attended communicated the same simple message: "Free Josh Young"

Those who attended communicated the same simple message: “Free Josh Young”

Josh will stand trial jointly with his own father - the person who originally accused him of committing the crime before admitting he was the real perpetrator.

Josh will stand trial jointly with his own father – the person who originally accused him of committing the crime before admitting he was the real perpetrator.

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Robert Richardson
Rally Location: Bel Air, Maryland Courthouse
Date: January 16, 2013
Case summary:

Robert is facing trial for the murder of his father in Maryland. In the days, weeks, and months following the crime people began to emerge to describe stories of suspected verbal and perhaps even physical abuse perpetrated on the teen by his father. Robert was reported as attending school in well-worn clothing and neighbors described hearing many loud fights – including one where the father threatened his son. This case is a tragic reminder that we all have a responsibility to stand up for children when we suspect they need help. If this had been done for Robert previously his father would almost certainly be alive.

This is not lost on those who are now very vocal about their support of the Maryland teenager. His supporter base is growing and those who have grown to care about him refuse to turn a blind eye to this terrible situation.

Robert's supporters stood in the rain on behalf of the Maryland teenager.

Robert’s supporters stood in the rain on behalf of the Maryland teenager.

Those holding signs communicated a number of different messages regarding juvenile injustice.

Those holding signs communicated a number of different messages regarding juvenile injustice.

Those in support of Robert plan to keep standing against injustice until their voice is heard loud and clear.

Those in support of Robert plan to keep standing against injustice until their voice is heard loud and clear.

A third rally for Robert is scheduled to take place on April 19 at 10 a.m. Those attending plan to meet in front of the courthouse at 9 a.m. at the Harford County Circuit Court. If you are in the area and would like to attend there are more details on this Facebook event page. Please help spread the word to anyone who might be in a position to attend.

An article about the January rally is here.

Injustices in Indiana

Ellen Page played Slyvia Likens in "American Crime" - a girl tortured and murdered by neighborhood children

Ellen Page played Sylvia Likens in “An American Crime” – a girl tortured and murdered by her caretaker and neighborhood children. Copyrighted and all rights reserved – in compliance with Fair Use or educational/research purposes

Indiana is a dangerous state for adolescents and teenagers. The consequences for poor decision making, on the part of minors, are severe. Most recently we got a glimpse into the inner workings of the system when a group of teenagers were arrested for felony murder in Indiana after entering a man’s home. They did not commit a murder. They did not even plan a murder. They picked a home to enter based on the belief no one was even home. However, because the homeowner pulled a gun on the teenagers and killed one of them the prosecutor feels he must set an example.

There is no question that making a choice to break into a home is a bad one. No one – including the family of one of the boy’s, Blake Layman – would argue that a consequence is not warranted. The consequence should reflect the crime committed though, right? It should not be based on the crime manifested as a result of a prosecutor perverting one of the best examples of bad law in existence.

The prosecutor clearly feels he must set an example though. The felony murder rule almost always seems as though it is intended to set an example. We live in a society that quickly forgets the harsh lessons learned by others, but we like to establish precedents. The more extreme, the better.

That is, until that precedent involves someone we love.

You don’t necessarily have to make a bad decision to find yourself facing serious time in prison. People just need to think you did – namely a prosecutor and a jury. In the state of Indiana age has seemed, prior to today, insignificant.

How many times have you heard the mantra “adult time for an adult crime” or “if a child can make an adult decision they should be tried as an adult”? On its face it almost sounds reasonable, but these are fallacies.

First off, there is no such thing as an adult decision. One cannot logically say that a child made an adult decision. The main reason it is illogical to describe a decision in the above way is because it is a scientific fact that the brain of an adolescent, teenager, and even young adult is not fully mature. The process of brain maturation is a gradual one. Areas in the brain critical for making intelligent decisions appear to be the last to completely develop. For example, children do not have the same degree of impulse control, ability to fully understand consequences, or emotional control as adults.

If children could drive...

If children could drive…

As a society we know this. We don’t let young children drive vehicles. We don’t allow adolescent girls to make the decision to get married. Though there are some parents who allow their children to drink alcohol in the privacy of their home, it isn’t legal and as a society we allegedly do not condone it. There is a laundry list of decisions we do not allow children to make and these are only a few examples.

Individually most people realize there is a difference between children and adults, even if these people are the first to post a disparaging comment on a news story about the latest tragedy perpetrated by a young teenager. “Fry ’em!” is one I see a lot. However, these people probably wouldn’t hand their car keys to a twelve year old boy and ask him to go to the store and buy a six pack of beer. Not just because it is illegal to do it, but because they would likely have grave concerns about whether he would even make it to the store without causing an accident.

They also probably wouldn’t tell their fourteen year old daughter that it is okay to quit school and marry a 20-year-old boy she met on the Internet. One reason is because most parents wouldn’t trust their child to make a decision of that magnitude. Parents have a job, which is to protect their child or children from others who may harm them. Often the responsibility of a parent is to guide the child when it comes to making decisions, protecting the child from his or her own self.

Some believe the act of committing murder – under any circumstance – is different than other kinds of decisions. Again, this is illogical. The same adolescent brain that society has deemed incapable of making decisions such as drinking alcohol, voting, gambling, and myriad other activities is responsible for making the decision to kill. A person’s brain does not magically mature moments before this kind of decision is made. A child does not automatically transform into an adult just because he or she is waived into the adult court either.

And yet that is exactly how the system works in some states. A look into Indiana’s past reveals a state that is inconsistent in its treatment of juveniles as well as adults. However, the state was not always as hard on teenagers as it is now. Take the story of Sylvia Likens. Sylvia was left in the care of the Baniszewski family a few months before she died in 1965. The 16-year-old was tortured and brutalized in more ways than one before she finally succumbed to her fate.

The manner of her death is shocking, but the circumstances surrounding it are almost unfathomable. The woman charged with her care, Gertrude Baniszewski, not only inflicted severe abuse on the teenager, but encouraged her own children and other kids in the neighborhood (one as young as ten) to do the same. Astonishingly, adults who came in and out of the home saw Sylvia’s condition but did nothing to help her.

Gertrude had seven children of her own. Paula was 17, John was 12, Stephanie was 15, Marie was 11, Shirley was 10, and the twins were 18 months. John was convicted of manslaughter – sentenced to serve a penalty of two-to-21 years. He was released after two years. Paula was convicted of second-degree murder. Two neighborhood boys named Richard Hobbs and Coy Hubbard, were also convicted of manslaughter. They were released after two years as well.

Though Gertrude was sentenced to life in prison, she and her daughter eventually received new trials. Twenty years after Sylvia’s murder, Gertrude was released on parole. She changed her name and left the state. In 1990, she died as a result of lung cancer. Her eldest daughter Paula took a plea of voluntary manslaughter and was released after serving two years.

The story was immortalized in the 2007 film An American Crime, starring Ellen Page and Catherine Keener.

What a difference a few decades make, right? In 1966, a child of 12 in Indiana faced a sentence of 2-to-21 years for murder.

It is hard to know what the future holds for Anthony who resides at Wabash, or 16-year-old Blake who awaits his trial for felony murder while housed currently at the county jail among adult offenders. Just prior to his arrest, Blake was a freshman in high school and working 30 hours each week at Wendy’s. He also helped his mother care for his younger sister who has suffered from a brain tumor since she was very young. In a very short span of time Blake’s life changed completely. Now he faces the possibility of a lifetime in prison.

The frightening lesson to take away from this is that if you live in Indiana (or states who treat juveniles similarly) you or someone you know could find themselves in this type of situation. Blake and Anthony could have been anyone’s children. They are someone’s children. As resistant as one may be to the idea that something like this could happen to them, it is important to accept that possibility because the justice system is broken and anyone may become its victim.

This is American society at its core. This is how we respond to complex social problems such as juvenile crime. These sentences will not reduce the amount of crime in this country because they are not the cause. Forcing children to become adults in a legal sense when we scoff at the idea of doing so in other aspects of life is absurd.

Enough said.

Can I get a witness?

Eyewitness testimony is a serious problem when it comes to the American criminal courts. The Innocence Project has exonerated almost 300 people who have been wrongfully convicted of heinous crimes. The organization has stated that “eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide.” The Innocence Project described misidentification as playing a role “in nearly 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.”

So what does that say about cases that rely entirely on eyewitness testimony?

Now ask yourself if you would be comfortable convicting a person if a case is based entirely on the eyewitness testimony of confirmed gang members. If the answer to that question is “no”, I have a story you must read.

Martin Anthony Villalon Jr., known to his friends and family as Anthony, is 19 years old. He resides in the Wabash Correctional Facility in Indiana – a prison well known for housing some incredibly violent and aggressive offenders. He was 15 when he was arrested in connection with the shooting of another teenager named John Shoulders. Though the DNA recovered from the crime scene did not match Anthony or the other person accused of the offense, he was subsequently convicted of murder and sentenced to 60 years. The prosecution’s case was based on eyewitness testimony.

The other individual charged with committing the crime, Prevaun McDaniel, was acquitted in adult court. The case against both boys was equally as weak, but McDaniel’s defense attorney fought hard in the court room for his client. He meticulously debunked the prosecution’s cases, piece by piece. He discredited alleged witnesses who were admitted gang members and likely had nefarious motives for lying to police about the shooting. McDaniel’s attorney systematically answered every question the jury could possibly have about his client and as a result of this painstaking approach, McDaniel is free.

Anthony was not nearly as fortunate. His attorney showed up to the trial, but he did not put on a defense that came close to rivaling that of McDaniel’s. In fact, a number of people waited in the halls of the courthouse to testify on Anthony’s behalf – including his grandmother, Cheryle. None of the people who could verify Anthony’s alibi, or speak to his character, were called to testify. Additionally, because these people anticipated they would testify, they were not allowed into the court room to observe the testimony of others.

Cheryle was present at the trial of Prevaun McDaniel, however. She credits the avoidance of a wrongful conviction in McDaniel’s case to his attorney. “His lawyer fought like it was his kid on trial,” she explained to me. “He pounced on every lie, every conflicting testimony, every witness…every flaw was discussed. Every time the prosecutor came up with something the lawyer jumped on it and tore it apart.” She went on to explain that even though his attorney was working for free, “he fought like he was being paid very well.”

The eyewitness testimony did not include anyone who observed the actual shooting. Instead, it consisted of a colorful array of characters. First there was Sergio “Outlaw” Rosa. Rosa admitted in court he was a gang member – belonging to the Latin Kings. He alleged that the day after Shoulders was shot, Anthony and Prevaun told him they committed the murder. He said they did it because Shoulders was the member of the Vice Lord street gang.

Another eyewitness was less certain about Anthony’s involvement in the murder. At Anthony’s trial, the witness said he did not know the teen and admitted that in his original eyewitness description he had failed to identify Anthony as Hispanic. He also confirmed he had been unable to identify Anthony when the police showed him photographs.

The third witness, Becky Clemens, took the stand and claimed Anthony stopped by her house on the day of the murder, looking for Shoulders. She said he was looking for him because he was “going to get his ass beat on the G” and because Shoulders was apparently “claiming Vice Lord.” Her testimony lacked credibility because upon further examination it was determined she had her own gang affiliations. In an appeal on behalf of Anthony, an attorney wrote, “Clemens testified that she had previously had boys living in her house who were members of the Spanish Gangster Disciples. She was shown a copy of her MySpace page, and admitted to its accuracy.”

The same defense attorney described Clemens as a “gangster mother at heart”.

The eyewitness accounts were conflicting and at times witnesses testified to seeing or hearing things that were factually incorrect. People who could have provided information countering these claims were not called to testify at Anthony’s trial.

There were other problems as well. Allegations of jury misconduct were revealed after the conviction. It was alleged that one juror was observed hugging a family member of the victim during the course of the trial.

Another problem with the jury in Anthony’s trial pertained to one of its members. “We had a big problem with one juror,” Cheryle recalled. “He was someone who knew some of our family members. We begged our lawyer not to have him sit on the jury. The judge gave the lawyer a chance to do something when she asked him if there was a problem. He said, ‘we already picked him’. Later it was discovered he had ties to the prosecutor and he gave another juror a ride home on several occasions, admitting in court that they discussed the case outside the jury room”.

Many people have maintained that neither Anthony nor Prevaun were members of a gang. The prosecution’s theory was based on this premise, despite the unsettling lack of reliable or credible evidence supporting it. Neither of the boys have ever confessed either. Cheryle explained this was despite the police having attempted to coerce a confession from Prevaun.

She noted, “Prevaun was tortured in the adult jail and every time he was beaten or hurt, the prosecutor would tell him if he said Anthony did this crime he could go home. Prevaun never did say it was Anthony. He said he didn’t know Anthony personally. He stood up to the system. Not many adults could have done that.”

Anthony is particularly vulnerable in the prison setting. He has an I.Q. of 71 points and he is described by his grandmother as being the kind of person who wants to please those around him. She does not believe he had any part in the murder of John Shoulders. She does not believe he is even capable of such a crime. “If I believed for one second he killed John I would do my best to help him live with his punishment, but I would not fight to free him,” she told me.

Cheryle worries about her grandson’s time in prison immensely. “He can be very naive. He is still like a 15 year old. He listens to these grown men and is starting to trust in what they say.” Her biggest fear is that in prison “he will change into someone else”. She despairs at the thought of losing the kind and caring boy she has always known. “We have so many great memories with Anthony. Our family loves to spend time together.”

When asked about her fondest memory she described a vacation the family took to Tennessee a year before Anthony was arrested. “There were seven of us, including my best friend. We rented a cabin for 6 days over the New Year’s holiday. Anthony and his friend carried the entire luggage, food, and other supplies up the longest flight of stairs I had ever seen. They never once complained”. She also described all of the time spent laughing and enjoying each other’s company.

Anthony has a strong network of support. Members of the family visit him as often as possible. Sometimes Anthony has to remove a person from his approved list of visitors just to accommodate all of the people who want to see him. Cheryle believes that close connections with family are critical for Anthony. She is fighting to maintain his emotional well-being, while also balancing an expensive legal battle in the hopes of clearing her son’s name.

In 2011, the Indiana Court of Appeals denied Anthony’s request to have his conviction overturned. His appeal called into question the constitutionality of the waiver into adult court. It also challenged his sentence of 60 years as “excessive”.

Anthony’s hope rests with the United States Supreme Court. The Court will make a decision about whether or not to hear Anthony’s case on September 24th of this year His motion is asking the court to consider if he should have had a right to a jury trial within the juvenile system. At the present time a Magistrate is responsible for making the decision as to whether a juvenile should be tried as an adult. Cheryle, and many others who signed a petition she posted online, believe that a jury should be involved in making such a serious determination.

To date, Cheryle’s petition has 484 signatures. The petition is located on Change.org, which you may access by clicking here. If the Supreme Court rules in Anthony’s favor it will set a precedent that would effect other countless other juvenile cases. Please help to make this petition a success by signing it and sharing it with others.

Cheryle wants the people reading this to know that her grandson “is innocent”. She went on to add, “If my grandson loses all his appeals he will be spending 60 years in prison. The real murderer will still be out there living his life. When Anthony comes home, I will be dead”. Most of Anthony’s other family members will be deceased as well.

“I want people to know all children are worth saving. No human being deserves to be locked in a cage for their entire life, even if they are guilty.” She then pointed to the punitive aspect of the adult system when it comes to punishing juveniles for crimes. “These children have no purpose in prison. They are wasting away. Anthony has had no schooling. He has only an eighth grade education”. She wonders how the people who support this kind of system can ever expect people who spend the majority of their lives in the prison environment – quite literally – to one day emerge from the prison setting and become a functional member of society.

“Our justice system has no mercy in their hearts,” Cheryle said finally. “It is so hard for me to grasp an understanding of what kind of society does this to children. Some children have committed terrible crimes, but does that give us the right to do terrible things to them?”

It’s a valid question. Does it?

And what about those who are wrongfully convicted? What about them?

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