Two wrongs

May 09, 2007

At 14 years and 11 months, Devon T. Richardson found himself charged with the murder of a 67-year-old receptionist. She was killed by a ricocheting bullet fired from a rifle that Devon and some friends found in an abandoned house. Now, at 15, Devon faces 10 years in prison.

That's because state law required that he be prosecuted as an adult in a criminal justice system intended for men, not boys. And a Baltimore circuit judge, who had the discretionary power to do so, declined to have him tried as a juvenile.

That's a shame. At his age and with no violent criminal record, Devon should have been a good candidate for the juvenile justice system and its services. He should have had a chance as a troubled truant to reform himself, instead of being thrust into an environment that research shows will likely lead him to commit more crimes.

Until that September day last year, Devon's most serious offense was getting caught with a knife in his coat pocket at school, which got him expelled. He had two other brushes with the law - car thefts with his brother. But when Devon was arrested in the murder of Janice M. Letmate, it didn't matter that he had no history of violence or that he had been taken from his drug-addicted mother at age 4 and sent to live with his grandparents.

A detective at police headquarters interviewed Devon at night without a lawyer or relative present, after reading him his rights, which he waived. He may be street savvy, as a court official later noted, but at his age, he couldn't have fully understood the jeopardy he was in or the consequences of what he would say about playing with a gun.

The police questioning ended at 12:48 a.m., and after all the "uh-hums" and his responses, here's what Devon said about the shooting: "Then it was my turn. When Joseph put the bullet it, uh, he cocked it back. He did everything for me. When he handed it to me I touched the trigger and it went off."

The case against him was troubling at best, with conflicting statements from other teens who were there, and the plea bargain that will imprison him at least for the rest of his teen years seems to serve neither Devon's best interests nor those of the society to which he will ultimately return.

In the end, Devon pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and got a 20-year sentence, all but 10 years suspended. If he's lucky, he'll qualify for a youthful-offender treatment program at the Patuxent Institution. And if he's not, he'll probably end up at a Hagerstown prison where a third of the inmates are 25 or younger, including two 16-year-olds. Devon Richardson was, at best, a kid headed down the wrong path; what the court has done is highly unlikely to set him on the right one.

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