2 arrests in child's burning

Boys, both 16, accused of placing caustic cleaner on school slide

April 18, 2007|By Nick Shields | Nick Shields,SUN REPORTER

Two teenage boys have been arrested in the chemical burning of a toddler last weekend at a Baltimore County playground, but the youngsters are not facing adult charges.

The boys, both 16 and from the Essex area, were charged as juveniles after police consulted with the county state's attorney's office, a police spokesman said.

The boys poured caustic drain cleaner on a slide, experimenting to see whether the chemical would burn the plastic, but seeing that it did not, they left with the chemical still on the slide, police said.

The toddler, Payton Potachney, received second- and third-degree burns and underwent skin grafts Monday at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The boyfriend of the child's mother said yesterday that he was angry that the teenagers are not facing more serious adult charges.

"I don't think that's right," John Leschefsky said. "I don't understand the justice system at all."

Although a police spokeswoman said Saturday that the culprits would face charges that included first-degree assault -- an offense that typically begins in adult court for 16-year-olds, police said -- the boys were charged with reckless endangerment and second-degree burglary. The Sun does not identify those charged as juveniles.

Scott D. Shellenberger, Baltimore County state's attorney, said he could not comment about specifics of the case, but added that additional charges, including adult charges, could be filed later.

"We're reviewing all the evidence, and we will make the determination of what the appropriate court is," Shellenberger said.

He would not comment about the possibility of first-degree assault charges in the case but said that a first-degree assault charge generally requires a specific intent to injure.

A legal expert said the prosecutors' decision might have been influenced by the apparent lack of evidence that showed intent to inflict harm.

"That's very different than `Oh, cool, why don't we put it on the sliding board?'" said Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor. "If you had facts like that, you might have a charge more egregious than reckless endangerment."

Payton, who turns 3 next month, had gone with his grandmother to the playground at Victory Villa Elementary School in Middle River on Saturday and slid down the plastic slide. Within minutes, he was screaming, and his family took him to the hospital.

The slide had been coated with an industrial-strength drain cleaner containing sulfuric acid, police said.

Police said the teenagers, who were not named, kicked in the door of a locked storage area in the back of the school. The teenagers did not know there were chemicals behind the door, and it was unclear what time the school was burglarized, said Cpl. Michael Hill, a county police spokesman.

Bottles of drain cleaner acid were taken and used to douse a playground slide, police said.

"They wanted to see if it would burn through plastic," Hill said.

The liquid also was poured over other pieces of playground equipment, authorities said.

A Police Department school resource officer learned about the possible involvement of one of the boys, police said. A second teen was arrested Monday after interviews and a continued investigation, police said.

A county schools official said Monday that procedures for storing hazardous chemicals at schools are under review.

The county school system issued this statement yesterday: "The school system has a collaborative and positive relationship with the Baltimore County Police Department. We are pleased that officers worked swiftly on behalf of the community to make an arrest in this matter."

Legal experts said prosecutors consider several factors in determining whether to charge youngsters as juveniles or adults.

Warnken and Christopher Flohr, an adjunct professor at University of Maryland School of Law and president of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, said youngsters' "amenability" to juvenile treatment and their criminal records, if any, are important considerations. And Flohr said a suspect's age should not be overlooked.

He said that an adult could be sentenced to as much as 15 years in prison for second-degree burglary, and a reckless endangerment conviction could result in a a maximum sentence of five years in prison for an adult.

"We want to have young kids have a chance and not brand them with the consequence of a lifelong felony conviction at the age of 16," Flohr said.

"I understand and recognize the pain the [2-year-old's] family is going through, and I feel for them, but if we judged exclusively by what the family wants, we would be in a lot of trouble," he added.

The legal experts said the teens could face sanctions in juvenile court that could range from being released to their parents to spending time in a juvenile facility up the age of 21.

The two teenagers were released to their parents.

Payton was in fair condition yesterday at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, officials said.

Leschefsky said the youngster was experiencing more pain after surgery, and that another surgery is scheduled tomorrow.

"He looks a lot worse than I think he feels because he's a strong kid -- a lot stronger than I think I would have took it," he said.


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