A life worth living?

April 22, 2004

AT 15, Michael L. Taylor faced an audience at a state-run boot camp for teen-age offenders and promised never to hurt anyone again. It was a promise he didn't keep, couldn't keep. Today, at age 20, he sits in a federal courtroom in Baltimore, listening to the story of his life, a tale of drugs and deprivation that may save him from an executioner's syringe.

Mr. Taylor, along with several boyhood friends, sold crack cocaine and killed to protect their West Baltimore turf in the impoverished neighborhood of the now-demolished Lexington Terrace housing project where they lived. He is facing the death penalty after being convicted in a drug-murder conspiracy for killing a man who was to testify against his codefendant, Keon D. Moses.

The story of how Mr. Taylor came to sit at the defense table in Room 1A in the federal courthouse on Lombard Street is a diary of a scrawny boy with a sparkly smile enticed by a drug trade that paid him $400 a week as a 12-year-old dealer. The circumstance of his young life reads like a menu of the social ills afflicting thousands of broken families in Baltimore - poverty, substance abuse, unemployment, crime. It reflects a juvenile justice system that warehouses kids in an atmosphere of intimidation and violence.

The trial of Mr. Taylor and Mr. Moses presents a stark view of today's corner drug trade - decentralized, manned by teen dealers, managed by gun violence. It offers compelling reasons why police must be focused on the drug trade and policy-makers must be serious about juvenile justice reform.

Theirs was a world that many of us don't know and too many others know too well.

Both men were born to single, teen-age mothers whose families lived in crowded apartments in the Towers, the nickname for the Lexington Terrace project. Their mothers became junkies together, snorting cocaine and later shooting heroin. When Mr. Taylor's mother wasn't in jail, she shoplifted and stole to support a $150-a-day habit. His father also used and sold drugs. His mother's mother, in whose apartment he lived, was an alcoholic who stayed away from home for days a time. His father's father was shot and killed in a robbery.

This was a neighborhood where children raised children and kids portrayed drug dealers when playing cops and robbers. After his family was evicted from the Lexington Terrace apartment, the 10-year-old Taylor was sent to live with his father's sister in another part of town. It should have been his chance at a better life - his aunt, unmarried and working, tried desperately to give him that shot. But Mr. Taylor could never leave behind his "little rat pack" of friends or the streets of West Baltimore or the easy money of drugs. His schools could never keep a hold on him.

As a teen-ager, he ran through the juvenile justice system on drug possession, theft and probation violations. He attended Maryland's infamous boot camp system, which was shut down because of its abusive, violent methods. Two months after he graduated, he picked up his first violent charge, a shooting. He was 15.

Keon Moses' run at life isn't much different - he lived in the Towers until they were torn down in 1996. His mother died of AIDS; his father, a convicted drug dealer, is serving a life sentence in a federal prison. Like Mr. Taylor, Mr. Moses never graduated from high school. But he did graduate from a state boot camp, and four months later, he shot a drug dealer. He was 16. The friends' descent into violence continued until Mr. Taylor and Mr. Moses were accused in a series of murders, jailed in September 2002, and convicted this month in the drug-murder conspiracy that may lead to their executions.

The Towers have long been demolished, but their legacy persists. Of the 109 teens with violent crime and drug records enrolled now in a city safe-kids project, 26 live within a mile of a park that was Mr. Taylor's old stomping ground.

The generational tie extends through Mr. Taylor himself. His 19-month-old daughter was born while he was in jail. The mother of his child, Shamier Delvison, 20, has been on her own since she was 13 - "I wasn't treated right as a child," she says. Unemployed now, she will be raising Mr. Taylor's daughter without him. If a jury spares his life, Mr. Taylor will be imprisoned with no chance for release. Who can predict what the future holds for his daughter, Da'Janae?

A few in Mr. Taylor's family managed to escape the abuse, the violence, the streets. Mr. Taylor and his 23-year-old aunt, Carla Turner, were children together. A high school graduate and mother, she has a good job at a city hospital. "I turned out this way because I saw another side," she says, referring to the care and concern of the half-sister who helped raise her.

Salvaging a Michael Taylor or a Keon Moses in neighborhoods like Lexington Terrace doesn't rely solely on an aggressive crimefighting strategy or state-of-the-art juvenile facilities. It begins at the beginning - and before that - with access to family planning, affordable health care, decent housing, a living wage, good schools. For no child should be a child uncared for.

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