Taking A Chance On Change

Shanae Watkins urges kids not to be like she was, but does that make her a role model?

June 18, 2008|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,Sun reporter

When Shanae Watkins was 12, she killed a girl. Stabbed her three times with a kitchen knife one afternoon on a busy corner in downtown Baltimore. It was a dumb squabble over a 19-year-old guy.

It's been more than a decade since Watkins cut short Chineye Mills' life at age 13, seven years since she left a juvenile detention center with a chance to start hers over again.

Far from burying the murder in a corner of her psyche, Watkins, now 23, relives it all the time. Willingly. In public. On the radio, in a lecture hall and at a small gathering, she has eloquently offered herself as a cautionary tale for girls stalked by temptation and exploitation - and as proof of the possibilities of redemption.

While many praise Watkins for her willingness to expose her ugly past, some girls' advocates say showcasing her moving testimony does not come without major qualms and reservations. For starters, they don't want girls to glorify her crime. Besides, with society full of highly successful women, do they really need her as a role model?

Watkins shrugs off the concerns with a world-weary smile. "To some people my story is inspirational, but some people feel I'm not worthy," she said in an interview. "I can't please everyone. But as long as I can touch one person in the crowd, that's enough for me. I'll take that backlash."

She sees it as her duty, her calling even, to speak out. It's hard not to conclude that being a reformed juvenile murderer may be the best thing going for her. Out of the spotlight, she's an unemployed, undereducated, single mother with three kids barely getting by on food stamps. But in this public role, she is often showered with attention, applause and, not incidentally, modest speaking fees.

If a Baltimore-based nonprofit group gets its way, she soon will touch a far wider audience. The Urban Leadership Institute, which promotes youth development, has become Watkins' champion, not only lining up paid appearances but also finding a writer to help her pen a memoir. Now it envisions taking her on a sort of nationwide roadshow.

"Her story is going to have her all over the country," predicted LaMarr Shields, the institute's president, "and people will pay to sit at her feet to hear what she says about girls' issues."

The institute plans to publish her memoir next year, but before then it intends to reach out widely to youth services providers, public agencies, schools and nonprofit groups to promote Watkins. Meanwhile, Shields says, Watkins will receive training in the kinds of programs that are most effective at preventing girls from taking her destructive path.

Shields even hopes to create a video diary to record key moments, including a possible meeting with Watkins and her victim's mother, Kysha Gray. (Watkins has never reached out to Gray, saying she was not ready until now; Gray, who could not be reached for this article, complained two years ago that the public attention given Watkins "really tears me up.")

Not only would national exposure spread Watkins' message, Shields said, but it would be therapeutic for her - and for her bank account, since the institute would make sure she received fair compensation.

Shields came across her story when he saw Girlhood, a gripping 2003 documentary that followed Watkins and a girl named Megan as they served juvenile jail time at the Thomas J.S. Waxter Center in Laurel.

When viewers meet her, Shanae is a chubby, bright-eyed girl with pigtails that boing from her head. Unlike the manic Megan, she acts the model prisoner, clearly hoping charm will speed her return to freedom. In the end, she spent four years locked up.

As a 14-year-old, Shanae hardly seemed destined for role-model status. At one point in the film, she muses about the stabbing:. "Am I supposed to be upset, am I supposed to beat myself up over it or something like that? I don't know."

The film also lays bare the demons in Watkins' past that might have set her on the path to murder. At age 10, an older cousin gave her Hennessy cognac; the next day, she lost her virginity. Soon she was binge-drinking, smoking marijuana and skipping school. At 11, she says she was gang-raped by five men. Ashamed, she initially told no one.

(The trauma goes back even earlier: She says she was molested at age 4 or 5.)

On camera, her mother, Antoinette Owens, laments her inability to save her daughter. She moved out of public housing but had to work two jobs, which often meant leaving Shanae alone. Owens says she begged various government agencies for help, only to be told nothing could be done because her daughter had committed no crime.

Shanae got wilder and wilder. On April 29, 1997, she and Chineye fought over the 19-year-old both had dated. The girls were at the corner of Howard and Saratoga streets. Shanae had a knife in her purse. Instead of a forgettable fistfight, the quarrel turned into a murder.

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