NAACP seeks inquiry into teen's death

Youth died in facility for juvenile offenders

August 08, 2007|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,Sun reporter

The Maryland NAACP, its Baltimore branch and other activists are joining a family's call for a state investigation into how prosecutors have dealt with a youth's death in January at a privately run residential program for juvenile offenders in Carroll County.

The family of Isaiah Simmons says six counselors who pinned the youth to the ground for more than three hours before he passed out and died should be charged with manslaughter, a felony, rather than reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor.

Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the Maryland attorney general's newly formed civil rights office should investigate how prosecutors in Carroll County have dealt with the Simmons case.

"They need to look at this and see if justice is being done, and right now it doesn't look like justice is being done," Cheatham said.

The counselors charged in Simmons' Jan. 23 death were employees of Bowling Brook Preparatory School, a residential facility for juvenile offenders that was forced to close after the incident. Trials are scheduled in October.

A grand jury indictment accused the counselors of reckless endangerment for waiting 41 minutes to summon an ambulance for Simmons, who was unresponsive and needed medical attention.

Federal authorities said in March that they were launching a civil rights investigation into Simmons' death, which was ruled a homicide by the Maryland medical examiner. An FBI spokeswoman said yesterday the investigation is "ongoing," but declined to comment further.

Cheatham and Danielle Carter, Simmons' sister, said they believe race played a role in the decision to indict the counselors on a charge of reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor, rather than the more serious charge of manslaughter. They note that most of the counselors are white, as are the prosecutors, investigator and grand jurors who dealt with the issue. Simmons, 17, was black.

"I felt like they completely devalued his life to something that is the equivalent of a speeding ticket," Carter said. "Reckless endangerment is an insult and a slap in the face to our family and to my brother's memory."

Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes said race had nothing to do with the charging decisions.

He said the county grand jury that heard the case was thoroughly briefed on all of its options, including filing manslaughter charges, but rejected that option.

"We make an impartial presentation of the facts, evidence and the law, and they make the decision," Barnes said. He said ignoring the grand jury's decision and instead filing manslaughter charges would lead to "a mountain of legal challenges."

Attorney Scott Rolle, a former Frederick County prosecutor who represents one of the defendants in the Simmons case, said, "I can tell you this case has zero racial motivations at all in it."

Rolle said the evidence did not support filing manslaughter charges and questioned whether criminal charges should have been filed at all, describing what happened as a tragedy not only for Simmons' family but for counselors who were trying to help troubled young men turn their lives around.

In an Aug. 1 letter, Simmons' mother, Felicia Wilson, formally asked Carl O. Snowden, director of the attorney general's civil rights office, to investigate the way Barnes has handled the case.

Noting Carroll County is predominantly white, Wilson wrote: "The failure of the State's Attorney, an elected official, to hold these men accountable for this crime has to be motivated by my son's race. There is no other reasonable explanation."

Snowden said yesterday that he is reviewing Wilson's letter, but that it appears there is little, if anything, his office can do about the grand jury's decision to indict on the lesser charges.

"We would not have any role in overturning the grand jury decision," Snowden said.

Cheatham and other NAACP officials and advocates plan to join Simmons' family at a rally in East Baltimore tomorrow to call for a state investigation.

The Rev. C.D. Witherspoon of the Community Pulpit Foundation, a faith-based advocacy group, said the Simmons case raises important civil rights issues.

"People of color and who are poor, there is less value placed on their lives," Witherspoon said. "It happens repetitiously in the Maryland criminal justice system. We need to find ways to right some of the systematic wrongs in the system."

greg.garland@baltsun.com

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