Society stumbles, and a child pays price

August 02, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Poor Irvin J. Harris. Only 11 years old when he was stabbed to death and left in a wooded area of Northeast Baltimore, the kid really didn't stand a chance.

The list of people who failed Harris is either a very long one or a very short one, depending on where you think ultimate responsibility lies. Let's start with police, prosecutors and judges, who stand accused of allowing the man charged with killing Harris to be on the streets when he should have been in prison.

That man is Melvin L. Jones Jr., who has a history of child sexual abuse convictions.

Let me get the disclaimers out of the way first. Jones hasn't been convicted. He's entitled to the same presumption of innocence that anybody else would get. That being said, we have to wonder why Jones wasn't in prison.

In 1990, Jones was sentenced to seven years in prison for child sexual abuse, with all but seven months and seven days suspended. Jones skated on that one because, according to Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office, the 4-year-old victim was too young to testify.

"He had a pattern of preying on younger kids because he knew they couldn't or wouldn't be able to testify," Burns said of Jones.

In 1994, Jones was convicted of indecent exposure and sentenced to nine months. Burns said two years were tacked on to that sentence because Jones violated his probation on the 1990 conviction. Jones was charged with a third-degree sex offense and child abuse in 2000. The case was not pursued.

In 2002, Jones was found guilty of having a sexual relationship with a teenage male. That "consensual relationship" - which started in January of 2000 when the boy was 13 - ended in July of 2001. Jones was convicted on two counts of a third-degree sex offense. That's when the system, despite all its good intentions, failed. If it turns out Jones is guilty, the system might have ultimately failed Harris.

Jones entered a plea agreement in which he got a 10-year sentence with all but one year suspended. Burns said other conditions called for Jones to register as a sex offender, to provide authorities with a sample of his DNA, to have no contact with his victim and no unsupervised contact with children under 16 years old.

Adam C. Rosenberg, who at the time was an assistant state's attorney, defended that plea agreement in an article in yesterday's Sun. Joseph Sviatko, another spokesman for the state's attorney's office, concurred yesterday. Even though Jones told police in an interview that he was "a pedophile who needed help," Sviatko said that since it was a sexual offense case with a consenting victim, the plea agreement was probably a good one.

"With sex offense cases it's really hard putting people on the stand," Sviatko said. "Is he [Jones] going to say that [he was a pedophile who needed help] on the stand? It becomes a whole hearsay thing."

Rosenberg said in yesterday's Sun story that "juries tend to be skeptical of victims in consensual sex cases."

Some jurors are still old-fashioned enough to be skeptical of the notion that 13- and 14-year-old children can have "consensual" sex with adults. But apparently very few of them are being called for jury duty.

Prosecutors and judges won't admit they failed Harris. And since Jones hasn't been convicted, perhaps they shouldn't. Nor should police, although they had Jones in their sights for a July 4 incident in which he allegedly choked Harris at the Inner Harbor.

It was Harris' mother, 41-year- old Shanda Harris, who told police she would follow through on charges in that incident. Police say that Jones was initially charged with common assault. The case was upgraded to aggravated assault and assigned to a detective, but police say by that time Shanda Harris was reluctant to press charges.

Police also say they didn't issue a warrant to arrest Jones for violating his probation by being with a child under 16 because they had only the name Melvin Jones with no middle initial and no date of birth.

But as much as we can fault cops, prosecutors or judges - and there's plenty of blame here for all of them to share - let's cut to the chase about the people who should have been Harris' first line of defense and the ones who ultimately failed him: his family.

Harris' father is in prison for murder. I could go on another rant about what happens to black boys when their fathers aren't around, but what would be the point?

His mother spent time in drug rehab and let Jones watch her children even after becoming aware of his conviction four years ago for having "consensual" sex with a boy not much older than her 11-year-old son. Shanda Harris should be deaf from the alarm bells that should have been ringing in her head.

Shanda Harris said that Jones was "like a male role model" to Harris. A convicted pedophile had to fill a void that Dad, uncles, granddads and male cousins failed to rush in and fill.

It's hard to blame cops, prosecutors and judges for that.

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