On my belly they lay the blue strings
You know what that means
Here comes my family
On their faces I see pain
Thinkin' in my head
I'm the one to blame
And now it's over
They close the casket
And my son just became a goddamn
How many homies gonna die for this blue
-- from "The Funeral," written by Donald Love III after his February 1997 arrest for rape
The Arizona Republic's lead story on July 8 concerned Bill Clinton's whirlwind trip to the Valley: "'We Can Do Better.' President pitches hope in south Phoenix."
A large photo of the grinning chief executive splayed across the front page. Another headline read, "5 Guilty of Sexual Assault. Mentally ill girl gang-raped for hours." A small photo captured 19-year-old defendant Jermaine Johnson's stunned reaction as the guilty verdicts were announced.
The day before, Clinton had spoken to community leaders at a tortilla factory. "As blessed as America has been," he said, "not every American has been blessed by this [economic] recovery. All you've got to do is drive down the streets here in south Phoenix to see that."
On his return to Sky Harbor Airport, the president did not find his way to one of those streets, East Chipman Road. Chipman is about five minutes from the airport, in the "Park South" neighborhood. Park South covers an area bounded by 16th and 24th streets, Broadway and Roeser roads.
Gangbanging drug pushers regularly peddle their wares on Chipman Road and in nearby crackhouses. Many families have lived there for generations, in modest well-kept homes. But Chipman, in recent years, also has been the site of much violence.
In February, three young men and a young woman were murdered in a one-room brick hut on East Chipman. The case is still under investigation. Two days later, four more people were shot, one fatally, a few blocks away. The alleged shooter in that case has been arrested.
Two years earlier, farther west at 1827 East Chipman, apparently up to 30 young men had sex over a span of hours with a mentally handicapped 15-year-old girl. Phoenix police later detained and arrested 10 teenagers on suspicion of raping the girl and other charges.
All 10 were documented members of the Park South Crips gang, a loose confederation of young blacks.
Four of the 10 plea-bargained to reduced felony charges, and were placed on probation in April.
Five faced a heavily publicized jury trial this summer, which ended in their convictions on the rape charges. Two of the five, Carl Blackman and Darrion Hartley, also were convicted of kidnaping the girl.
Superior Court Judge Gregory Martin already has sentenced four of those five to mandatory prison terms, with 16-year-old Blackman getting the most time behind bars, nine years. Jermaine Johnson has a scheduled October 8 sentencing, which effectively will end the case. (Prosecutors on September 21 dropped charges against Michael Connor, whose trial had been pending.)
But jurors also decided that the defendants had not gang-raped the girl to solidify the Park South Crips' power base by terrorizing their turf -- the neighborhood. Prosecutors had charged the youths under an Arizona law that mandates greater punishment for members of street gangs convicted of committing crimes designed to bolster the gang's position. Those underlying crimes usually include robbery and extortion, not sexual assault.
(Several jurors indicated after the trial that they hadn't been able to link the defendants' gang affiliation to the rape's allegedly larger motivation.)
Although the jury wasn't convinced that a crime of gang-related intimidation had occurred, the Park South Crips were clearly the central institution in the young men's lives.
Behind the headlines in the "Chipman Road 10" case, there's a subtext -- and a subculture -- that most Phoenicians don't know, and can't fathom.
And much lingering contention as to what went wrong on February 15 and 16, 1997.
Darrion Hartley: "What you say, we raped you?"
Victim: "I don't know."
Hartley: "You know you lied so you wouldn't get in trouble for running away, huh. . . . Why you say we raped you? No motherfucking way we did."
Victim: "I told you I didn't want to have sex with you all."
(Hartley hands phone to Carl Blackman.)
Blackman: "Whose names did you say?"
Victim: "Every last one of you all."
Blackman: "Where you mama at, cuz you know we didn't rape you. That's so cruel."
Victim: "You did."
-- phone call of February 20, 1997, recorded by Phoenix police
"Fear in People's Hearts"
The Chipman Road rape trial made it clear that becoming a Park South Crip is a given for many of the neighborhood's youngsters.
Onetime defendant Michael Connor, for example, told police he got a "PSC" tattoo on his back in the sixth grade. Darrion Hartley said he was "jumped in" to the gang -- a physical hazing ritual -- at the age of 6.
Gang members may love their immediate families, if they have them around. But a banger's prime allegiance is to his or her buddies. Those are the individuals with whom he hangs, robs, rapes and, too often, dies.
"We're all in the same boat," Jermaine Johnson told police, speaking of his co-defendants.
The case also exposed the schism between Phoenix's white and black cultures: Many black Park South residents have little or no faith that police are there to serve and protect them.
They consider police misconduct against black citizens to be the rule, not aberrations. One incident that comes up constantly in interviews is the 1994 choking death by Phoenix police of black double-amputee Edward Mallet during a routine traffic stop that had escalated into violence. A Maricopa County civil jury awarded Mallet's parents $45 million, then blasted the police in an unusual post-trial statement. The Mallets later settled with the City of Phoenix for $5.3 million.
Right or wrong, neighborhood kids become inured with this deep mistrust of authority. No wonder that Chipman Road defendants such as Donald "Insane" Love III -- a onetime usher at the Ebenezer Baptist Church -- became a Park South Crip before he was old enough to shave.
"I see the detectives," he wrote in a 1997 jailhouse rap lyric, "they tell me some bullshit. I take the 5th. I ain't no punk. So fucc that shit. Then I go to court. It's on the news and shit. She [the judge] says, '160 G's.' Ain't that a bitch."
He wrote in another rap that year, "Me and my rida's in the hood we control. Every mothafuccen night we hood patrol."
Love's lyrics chronicle gang-related bloodshed on the streets of south Phoenix, casting the Park South Crips -- including some Chipman Road defendants -- as heroic gunslingers.
Perhaps he was just being creative in the manner of, say, Tennessee Ernie Ford, who once crooned, "If you see me comin', better step aside. A lotta men didn't. A lotta men died."
There's little doubt, based on police reports that predate the Chipman Road rape, that Donald Love embraced thug life as a youth. However, Love -- who's now on probation -- never lost touch with his "other" family.
"Donald is my roll [sic] model," one of his young cousins wrote to Judge Martin in 1998, "the person I look up to. I miss Donald very much. Since he been locked up, my life has changed. I have no one to keep me on the right track and keep me out of trouble."
A role model?
Love himself "just never had any real guidance from anybody," says his attorney, assistant public defender Brad Bransky. "There's no way you can condone what they did [during the Chipman Road rape], but you can see how they get where they are. The gangs are where these guys get their main support, for better or worse."
Love did get some guidance from an uncle in a March 1997 phone call taped by jail authorities.
"I'm hoping that after this thing is all over, man," Lewis White told his nephew, "that you take a shot at [stopping] taking stupid pills and turn in your membership to Thugs-R-Us."
"Uh-huh," Love replied.
Most of the Chipman Road defendants were reared by their mothers or grandparents, and have had little meaningful contact with their fathers.
Dennis "LuLay" Watson Jr.'s presentence report says he was raised mostly by his grandparents, including a maternal grandfather who is a pastor of a south Phoenix church. Watson's birth parents had little to do with him, the report says, and he joined the Park South Crips at a tender age. "In spite of this abandonment [by his parents]," it concludes, "the defendant feels his childhood has been normal."
It was, at least from where Watson sits.
Darrion "Knoccout" Hartley was a 14-year-old school dropout at the time of the rape. Growing up, he rarely saw his father; his mother -- who long has battled a crack cocaine addiction -- has been more of a peer than an authority figure.
An indicator of the mother-son relationship came during a taped jailhouse phone call in 1997.
"Mama, I been in here four months," Hartley told her. "I know where I can pick up some tight rock [crack cocaine]."
"Oh yeah," his mother replied.
"Put it like this. I'll go over in their hood. Pull a little somethin' out. A 30-cal or a little 12-gauge . . ."
(Hartley was proposing an armed robbery of rival gangsters in another part of town.)
Remarkably, Hartley had no criminal record before the Chipman Road case.
Other defendants, such as Carl "Mookie" Blackman, pretty much raised themselves. Blackman's drug-addled mother abandoned him, and his overwhelmed grandmother couldn't handle him, which left the youngster to his own destructive devices before he hit his teens.
Mookie Blackman was 13 years old when police first questioned him in the Chipman Road rape case.
(Blackman's mother spoke tearfully to Judge Martin at her son's sentencing: "He was only 13. Please! I can help him! Don't take my baby away from me!" The judge -- and Blackman himself -- seemed unmoved.)
"If you look at his record," prosecutor Joe Heileman told Martin, "you have to understand that Carl Blackman is beyond our help now. He is a person who will hurt someone else the minute he gets out of prison. . . . We shouldn't be swayed by the fact of the [defendants'] chronological age. The truth of the matter is they will be this way forever."
One of the few constants in the boys' lives was their gang. A Park South Crip -- not a defendant in the rape case -- wrote in a 1998 jailhouse note to a fellow banger:
"The hood will still be there for you [upon release from prison]. Just when we start comin' up this shit [the rape case] happens. Everybody we went to school with is here, y'all. . . . Crips 4-life. We have to sticc together."
(Crips like to substitute the letter "c" for "k," such as in "sticc" or "blacc.")
Odds are they'll end up in prison or an early grave.
"It's about living for right now for a lot of young black men, because they think they may not be around for long," says Perry Mitchell, chief of Maricopa County's pretrial services bureau, who personally monitored several Chipman Road defendants. "A black man in this country has a great chance of becoming a dope fiend, of going to prison or winding up dead at the hands of another person of color."
It's no mystery to Mitchell and others who work inside the criminal-justice system that the Chipman Road 10 wound up in street gangs.
In some ways, things aren't much different now than they were in 1927, when a University of Michigan professor wrote:
"It is not only true that the habitat makes gangs. But what is of more importance, it is the habitat which determines whether or not their activities shall assume those perverse forms in which they become a menace to the community."
The "menace" in the Chipman Road case, according to Phoenix police detective Rusty Stuart, went beyond the indignities inflicted upon the unfortunate teenage girl:
"The Park South Crips committed this crime to keep the neighborhood in line, to keep people from calling the authorities or from testifying in other cases," Stuart testified at a pretrial hearing. "That gang believes it owns that neighborhood, and they own everybody in it. The victim was an individual who was owned by the gang -- a 'hood rat' -- a thing who would not have had the right to say no."
Stuart's viewpoint -- called rabid and racist by some defense attorneys and black leaders -- gained credence through pretrial interviews of defendant TaRon "TBone" Auzenne.
"How did you intimidate the neighborhood?" a lawyer asked the young man in 1998. "What's the word intimidation mean, do you even know?"
"Put fear in people's hearts," Auzenne replied.
For legal reasons, the jury never got to hear that comment, nor his statement that the gang rape had served as an initiation for some of the younger perpetrators into the Park South Crips.
Prosecutors earlier had cut a deal with Auzenne in exchange for his testimony against his fellow Crips. That deal collapsed in late 1998, when Auzenne changed his mind about snitching.
He went to trial, was convicted, and now is serving seven years in prison.
The Gang Cop
Some people believe Rusty Stuart personifies everything that's wrong with the Phoenix Police Department's gang squad.
"That guy looks at a black kid and automatically sees a criminal," says the Reverend Oscar Tillman, head of the NAACP's Arizona chapter. "A kid is black, he lives in, say, Park South, so he must be a bad apple, a gangbanger. Then he [the officer] starts his targeting."
Tillman complains that Stuart and two police colleagues in the Chipman Road case, detectives Cameron Scadden and Mark Calles, see things as black and white -- both racially and rigidly. Defense attorneys at trial accused those cops of "manipulating" the rape victim and her mother to claim rape instead of consent.
Stuart says he does try to help young gangbangers in whom he senses a ray of hope for a decent future. One such person, he says, was Chipman Road rape convict TaRon Auzenne.
"I thought he had a chance at one point," the detective says, "and I went to his mom, who is a good woman. I told her that TBone wasn't an evil kid, but that he might be heading toward prison or worse. Then came the rape. But T-Bone had to make up his mind whether he wanted to be a gangster or not. He wants to be a half-Crip, and you can't do that. It meant more to him to be a Crip than to be free."
Stuart is an 11-year police veteran who has spent his entire career in south Phoenix, first in uniform and now as a detective. He says one of his professional goals is, "when the little neighborhood kids look up to a banger, they'll see someone in prison stripes."
He contrasts Auzenne with co-defendant Carl "Mookie" Blackman -- whom prosecutors described as one of the gang rape's ringleaders. Unlike Auzenne, Stuart says, Blackman was doomed from the start:
"He had a crackhead mom who didn't want him and a grandmother who couldn't handle him. Mookie wasn't made by Mookie -- he was made by the kids in that neighborhood. What chance did he have to survive, or Darrion [Hartley] have to survive? These are American kids like anyone else, and we lost them."
Retorts Hartley's attorney, Greg Clark:
"You get these gang cops involved, and they're gonna create this wild atmosphere -- that every crime is related to gangs who are out of control and running the streets. This whole thing just snowballed. My guy did make a mistake doing what he did, but he should have been handled in juvenile court as the probation officer there recommended. I like Darrion, and I plan to help him when he gets out."
Stuart is a strapping white guy who lives with his wife and two young sons in the far east Valley. He's aware that some folks take a look at him, learn of his Midwestern upbringing, and envision a redneck hick who has had little casual contact with people of color. Actually, the former Iowa State University football player says, he attended a racially mixed high school in Des Moines, and sees himself as color blind.
"I'm about as far from racist as you can get," he says. "Most people of all colors and stripes are good people. And there are assholes, too. I know we cops do lose perspective because we see so many of the assholes. But it's people like [the rape victim's mother] who keep me down there, people who stand up to the bullshit.
"Where me and the good Reverend Tillman would differ strongly is that I think community leaders should take much more responsibility for what happened to [the victim], and what happens all too often in that neighborhood. All he does is throw stones. For him to say that we are racists and somehow had it in for those Chipman Road guys is unbelievable. I know the schools have let these kids down, and so have other institutions, but it shouldn't be government's job to make sure kids do the right thing.
"I hated the plea-bargain offers to those guys. . . . Yeah, these cases are always tough -- rape cases and gang cases. Sometimes, you can't get the victims to even show up because of gangs' intimidation and threats. But that doesn't mean we should let people get away with crimes that we think we can prove they've committed."
Stuart says the so-called "peer pressure" at the Chipman Road rape house went beyond what most people can comprehend.
"Suppose T-Bone had said, 'What you guys are doing is fucked up, and I'm leaving,' what do you think was going to happen to him? He's gonna be a punk and they're gonna beat him down like a dog. When you're a Park South Crip and you're engaged in this type of violent act, you're not just a party pooper if you don't go along. The ramifications are far worse. How many people do you think saw Blackman and Hartley take that girl off the street to the house? But no one said a word until afterward, and even then -- after they knew what had gone on -- they kept their mouths shut. Why didn't Oscar Tillman get in their faces? Why didn't he ever say something about the victim, other than she was a liar? I think the word is hypocrisy."
Given to hyperbolic denunciations of allegedly racist-based motivations he sees at almost every turn, the Reverend Oscar Tillman makes an easy target. But he does have a constituency, and he's not speaking just to hear the sound of his own voice.
The Chipman Road rape case put Tillman in a sticky spot: How could a black leader possibly fault authorities for pursuing suspects in a vile gang-rape of a mentally handicapped black teenager -- even if the bad guys were black?
"I called Rick Romley a 'righteous racist' after the sentencing [of three Chipman Road defendants] because he goes around with syrup rolling off his chin talking about how fair he is and color blind. Then he throws the book at black and brown kids like nobody's business. Historically, Romley finds a way to send young black men to prison."
In the next breath, however, Tillman says he's "not defending those boys, and I never have. I'm not condoning their behavior. In all honesty, though, I think that little girl was manipulated by her mother, and it's regrettable. The whole thing was about peer pressure, not about gangs running the streets of south Phoenix. Four or five of those boys had sex with her consensually before. What changed that day?"
Though he's never spoken with the victim, Tillman says he "would have loved to say to her, 'If these young men did what you said they did, then I'm behind you all the way. But if they didn't, then I want you to really consider what you're doing to their lives.'"
Tillman says a juror told him by phone after the verdict that several panelists hadn't believed the victim, but that the defendants confessions to police had swayed them against the five.
"I'm thinking, the cops kept those kids in there until they started talking," says Tillman, a retired military policeman himself. "Then they twisted and turned them until they got what they needed."
He told Judge Martin at the sentencing of three Chipman Road defendants that he has "strong feelings for these young men. I believe in these young men. . . . The [prosecution] keeps saying, 'Gang members, gang members.' The jury didn't believe it, so why do they keep saying it?"
Tillman asked the judge to be as lenient as possible, so the trio could "get back the life they left a few years ago."
That life -- by some of the defendants' own accounts -- was dominated by their membership in the Park South Crips. Tillman explains that he was talking about the young men being out of jail, after which they could re-enroll in school or find a job.
"Where was the community is a fair question," he says, responding to Detective Stuart's accusatory comments. "Seems like nobody is there to do anything for those kids."
Tillman pauses, then quickly diverts the bulk of the blame to his nemesis, the Phoenix Police Department:
"A community like Park South has to make some real decisions that other communities don't have to make when it comes to dealing with the police: If someone in Park South calls the police and the police overreact, and someone gets killed -- and that has happened, if you look at the record -- then the person who called has blood on his hands.
"The police should have known about that house on Chipman, that nobody was hanging in there but those boys. With all of their supposed intelligence, they didn't know what the hell was going on. The police continue to fail that community -- they failed to help out a 13-year-old boy who had been abandoned."
A Tough Case
News accounts in February described how Laura Reckart -- the original Chipman Road case prosecutor -- had resigned because of threats she'd gotten from unidentified Park South Crip gangsters.
Actually, the 10-year veteran of the County Attorney's Office says she quit after a difference of opinion with her supervisors over the direction of the case. Reckart says they'd wanted to, and later did, offer the defendants far softer plea bargains than she'd contemplated.
"It's true I got threatened [by the gangsters]," she says, "and that was awful. And it was very frustrating, to put it mildly, being called a racist by some of the defense attorneys, and by Oscar Tillman. But the bottom line was, I didn't want any of the defendants to be probation-eligible, and my bosses did."
Chief deputy county attorney Paul Ahler disagrees with Reckart's analysis.
"Typically, we wouldn't offer probation on a gang rape," Ahler says, "but this wasn't a typical case. We never felt that these guys were innocent, but we weren't even sure if the victim was going to be able to testify because of her mental capacity and other legal issues. No one tried to intentionally undercut Laura. She's a good person and a good prosecutor. She worked this case very hard, got personally attacked by the other side, it wound her really tight."
He adds, "We don't go forward with cases just because public sentiment is telling us to go forward, which it was in this case. And we're certainly not going to drop a case because Oscar Tillman says we should. All in all, it was a tough case."
Joe Heileman, who took over from Reckart, says he made the decision to offer the controversial plea deals.
"Nobody in my office told me what I had to do with the case," says Heileman, a longtime prosecutor whose closing argument at the rape trial was compelling.
"The people who ended up going to trial were the ones who would have had to go to prison under the deals we offered -- that's because they had known the victim before that night, and knew she was retarded and vulnerable.
"I think the only reason we got convictions is that we did plead some people out. It wasn't a circus at trial, with 10 defense attorneys taking their crack at cross-examining that girl. I made the decision, and I think it was the right one."
Reckart says she would have compared the gang to a pack of wolves in her opening statement. She expresses frustration that Heileman and co-prosecutors Patricia Hicks and Brad Astrowsky couldn't sell the gang-related charges to the jury.
That job became tougher, Reckart concedes, after Judge Martin ruled that the jury wouldn't get to hear TaRon Auzenne's crucial 1997 statements to detectives -- "Put fear in people's hearts," and other self-incriminating comments.
Reckart attended the trial as a spectator, wearing bright-red dresses that flaunted her animus against the defendants: Members of the Crips despise the color red, which is what their rival gang, the Bloods, wear.
"The color was to tell them, 'You will not intimidate me, and I'm still here,'" she says. "'You're not gonna scare me like you tried to scare the victim and the neighborhood.' I believed that girl, and I thought the lack of support she'd gotten on this case was unconscionable."
Laura Reckart now is working part-time as a judge in the City of Glendale.
I, Taron Lamar Auzenne, have been a member of the Park South Crips gang since, at least, I was ten years of age. I have the gang name or 'moniker' of T-Bone. . . . On or about February 15 and 16, 1997, I participated in the kidnap and sexual assault of [the victim]. The [crimes] were committed to intimidate the victim and the surrounding neighborhood. The above-listed crimes assisted the Park South Crips by establishing their dominance over the victim and the 'neighborhood.'
-- January 14, 1998, affidavit, later recanted
As Detective Stuart points out, TaRon Auzenne's upbringing was benign compared with some of his co-defendants. Auzenne -- who grew up on Chipman across the street from the scene of the rape -- was blessed with a hardworking single mother and maternal grandparents with whom he lived as an only child.
His mother, Sherry, is a computer operator for the State of Arizona. His father -- with whom Auzenne has had a relationship despite his parents' estrangement -- owns a small business in south Phoenix.
A court-appointed psychologist noted in 1997, "The [Auzenne] family system seems to have cohesiveness, close ties, shared interests and extended family support."
Those ties apparently didn't run deep enough to keep Auzenne from joining the Park South Crips when he was 10. Phoenix police first linked the youth to the gang in June 1993, when he was 13.
Early the following year, he was suspended from school for carrying a realistic-looking toy cap gun on campus.
In March 1995, police listed the 15-year-old Auzenne as a possible suspect in a drive-by shooting, but never busted him. That summer, his mother turned him over to juvenile authorities, saying the boy was incorrigible.
Auzenne was back home a few days later.
Within the year, Phoenix police detained Auzenne for possessing marijuana, after a car chase. Juvenile authorities ordered him to perform community-service work, which he apparently never completed.
In April 1996, Phoenix police stopped Auzenne on South 21st Street and searched him for drugs. They found 20 white rocks, which turned out to be fake crack cocaine. Auzenne allegedly had been peddling the stuff on the street. They also confiscated a .25-caliber handgun, with five live rounds. Auzenne again was placed on juvenile probation, after three days in custody and two weeks of "home detention."
This was the same young man about whom his longtime next-door neighbor -- an elementary school teacher -- says, "He has always been courteous and respectful to me. He is basically a good boy who made a poor choice [in the Chipman Road incident]."
And this was the same person whose half-brother, a fifth-grader, says, "One thing that I know is that TaRon may have done something wrong, but he is a good brother to me. He cares about me, and he doesn't want me to get into any trouble, and he won't let me get into any trouble."
Auzenne certainly looked the part of a classic blue-clad gangbanger when he surrendered himself for questioning in late February 1997. Wearing a blue-and-white ball cap, blue shirt, blue tennis shoes and blue bandana, he told detectives he was a Park South Crip, and said he'd been part of the action involving the young girl at the Chipman house -- which he claimed hadn't been rape.
"What is a hood rat?" Detective Mark Calles asked him, after Auzenne used that phrase to refer to the young girl.
"A hood rat is a girl that don't respect herself, and let anybody and anyone have sex with her," Auzenne replied.
He would become the sole Chipman Road defendant who agreed to testify against his cohorts, in return for a plea bargain that would have freed him from jail in less than two years. That deal fell apart in late 1998, after Auzenne decided -- for reasons that still are uncertain -- that he'd take his chances at trial.
Detective Rusty Stuart says Auzenne likely will be targeted as a snitch in prison, even though he never did testify against his co-defendants. He cites a rap lyric about Auzenne that co-defendant Dennis "LuLay" Watson composed in early 1998. Titled Backstabber, it includes the lines:
"He showed a lot of love
"That niggah was my bro
"But he done turned
"From a friend to a mother-fuckin'
"As soon as I turned my back
"I got stabbed -- it was so drastic
"But niggah what I really want to
"Is lay you in a casket"
In a twist of legal fate, Watson is a free man these days, out on probation.
TaRon Auzenne is in prison.
Defense attorney Carmen Fischer -- an excellent advocate for Auzenne at trial -- doesn't believe he is a marked man.
"Word is that the other guys don't consider him a snitch," she says. "He gets along with them, and there's no hatred."
Auzenne's mother wrote to Judge Martin before her son's sentencing, "It has not always been easy raising TaRon. Sometimes he has been willful and stubborn. But . . . he is a decent human being who used bad judgment."
Adult probation officer Jean Scott concluded in her presentencing report, "This writer does not accept as justification statements to the effect that [he] is easily led, impulsive, desensitized and conditioned to a different set of values because he is a resident of South Phoenix, and, by default, became a gang member in order to survive in his environment."
Auzenne's great-uncle sent a similar message, one far different than that of Oscar Tillman, in his letter to Martin:
"I refuse to lay claim to the well-worn cliché of being 'underprivileged or neglected' because TaRon comes from a God-fearing, hardworking and decent family that showered him with love," Lewis Johnson wrote. "Out of TaRon's immaturity at age 17, he made a poor decision. He is now almost 20. . . . We hope that you will understand that we do not argue the points of law, nor do we question the essence of justice."
A Turn of Events
Judge Martin's courtroom was packed on the morning of September 22 for the sentencing of Daniel Robinson. Most were there to show their support for the slight 19-year-old, who faced a mandatory prison sentence ranging from a little more than five years up to 14 years.
As the hearing started, Martin indicated he was probably going to sentence Robinson to seven years, the same term he'd given TaRon Auzenne weeks before.
Rusty Stuart asked the judge if he could say something. Practically everyone present expected the detective to ask for the maximum sentence. Practically everyone was surprised.
"I've come to know quite a bit about each and every [defendant]," Stuart said. "I have not seen the level of violence with [Robinson] as I did with some of the other defendants."
He asked Martin to impose the lowest possible sentence, which -- with time already served -- would mean Robinson would have to serve less than two more years in prison instead of at least four.
Oscar Tillman sat in the spectator's gallery without expression. A few seats away, Robinson's mother, Veronica Young, wept and mouthed thanks to the detective.
It was a stunning role reversal.
For months, Stuart had privately berated prosecutor Joe Heileman for being too soft with the probation plea bargains. Now, it was Heileman, not the detective, who was asking Martin to be tougher with a convicted rapist.
Veronica Young told the judge that her son now was a different -- and better -- person than he'd been in February 1997, having earned his GED certificate and renewed an interest in God.
She submitted a letter to Martin, in which she wrote, "[My son] is not the composite created by the prosecution -- the gang-banging, one-dimensional sex-fiend [Heileman] described. The events of that night do not define my son as to who and what type of person he is. Nor is he today the person of that night."
Handcuffed and shackled, Robinson stood before Martin, and read his own letter. He apologized profusely for what he'd done at the Chipman Road house, saying he'd made a horrible, stupid mistake.
"I'm really anxious to live my life again," he told the judge.
Martin spoke extemporaneously moments before sentencing the young man.
"This was a brutal case," he said. "I sat and heard the evidence, so I know what happened. . . . In my mind, there is absolutely nothing in this case that would suggest that law enforcement officers nor Mr. Romley or his office, or anyone else, was motivated by the race of the defendants in the manner which they handled this case."
Martin noted that Robinson was the first defendant to have shown remorse, and "I think his statements are genuine."
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SHOW ME HOW
Then, due largely to Detective Stuart's surprising recommendation, the judge ordered the lesser prison sentence of five-and-a-quarter years.
Robinson glanced over at Stuart and nodded.
See previous stories in the Hard Core series HERE
Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: email@example.com