Dispensing justice in light rail case

Teen convicted as adult to serve time in juvenile jail

May 08, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

Pastor Wayne Edmonds stood in the courtroom baffled. The Baltimore judge had earlier sentenced the girl who fatally stabbed his daughter at a light rail station to 25 years in adult prison. But because of a rarely employed law, the girl's accomplice - who also was charged and convicted as an adult - was about to be sent to a juvenile jail, meaning he will be freed by the time he is 21, at the latest.

The decision "fails to show consistency in the judicial system," Edmonds told Judge Martin P. Welch. "It fails to show young people that there are going to be consequences."

Authorities say Kendrick McCain tackled and held the victim's brother near the platform of the North Avenue station, preventing him from helping his sister, Nicole "Nikki" Edmonds, as she was stabbed to death by Lataye S. King on Nov. 7, 2006.

At age 15, McCain was charged as an adult with first-degree murder.

Under a deal with prosecutors, the youth pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree assault and conspiracy to commit robbery. Using a law enacted in 2002, McCain's attorney argued that her client should be sentenced as a juvenile. After the court's chief medical officer agreed, Welch granted the request in February over minimal objections from prosecutors.

That has put McCain, now 17, in a sort of netherworld, as his case is being heard in adult courtrooms but with the protections afforded by the juvenile system. A recent hearing was held at the judge's bench, in part to shield McCain and the public from what is turning out to be a difficult case for the Department of Juvenile Services.

McCain is waiting for a place in a residential treatment center for young offenders, many of whom have mental illnesses, learning disabilities and histories of violence. A Circuit Court hearing that had been scheduled for yesterday was postponed.

All of the centers for troubled youths in other states have refused to accept McCain, according to his attorney. The only in-state facility capable of handling him, the recently opened Victor Cullen Center in Frederick County, has a wait list.

Tammy Brown, a spokeswoman for the Department of Juvenile Services, said it is rare for all centers queried by the department to reject an applicant. As the rejections grow, caseworkers must turn to increasingly restrictive programs. The agency has received $200 million in state funding to build more facilities to address the problem.

It is not unusual for teens charged with adult crimes to seek to have their cases sent to juvenile court, where the goal is rehabilitation instead of punishment. But such requests are normally made before a trial starts or a plea is entered.

McCain, however, had his status changed after he had already been convicted of a crime as an adult. The Maryland legislature made that possible with little fanfare six years ago. Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, who helped author the legislation, said the goal was to eliminate some "unfairness" in the system for kids charged as adults with serious crimes but ultimately convicted of lesser ones.

Prosecutors say the law has only been used a half-dozen times in Baltimore, and statewide, public defenders say the number is about two dozen.

"We should be seeking [a transfer] in every case that a client is eligible," said Nancy S. Forster, the state's public defender. "I think juveniles get better services in juvenile court as opposed to being hauled off to [prison]. There are kids in [the Department of Corrections] who have no business being there."

In a city where homicides so often are sparked by disputes over drugs or involve people with long criminal backgrounds, Nikki Edmonds stood out. Her parents, a pastor and a worker at a credit union, had removed her and her brother, Marcus, from one of the city's most troubled high schools, fearing for their safety, and began home-schooling them.

Nikki and Marcus found jobs together at a Wendy's in Linthicum. On their way home on the light rail, McCain and his friend, King, 17, who had been on the train after stopping by a nightclub, plotted to steal the siblings' cell phones.

On the platform, McCain threw Marcus to the ground and pulled his jacket over his head, while King chased Nikki under a Jones Falls Expressway overpass and stabbed her in the upper body. Police said McCain and King never got the cell phones, but King did steal Nikki's purse. She pulled out a Wendy's sandwich and ate it as the two walked away.

Welch sentenced King, then a 16-year-old dropout who drifted from house to house, to life in prison but suspended all but 25 years. Based on a recommendation from Dr. Thomas J. Oglesby, the Circuit Court's chief medical officer, Welch decided to mete out a far different sentence for her friend.

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