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Exoneration by Association

A Letter to the Editor of the Fresno Bee finally forces me to write a post I’ve been deliberately avoiding for at least two weeks now. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about the problem the letter addresses. It’s that the case the writer addresses is, to my understanding, still wending its way through the system; I know the attorneys handling the case; and I haven’t wanted to write anything that might — and I stress might, because I’m such a small fish in this pond — have an impact on the outcome of the case.

The Letter, however, requires a response.

The basic background facts are these:

Five students [were] expelled from Central High School for cutting down two trees as a senior prank….

The students are all seniors and football players….

…[T]he prank was a case of “significant vandalism,” with estimated damage between $7,500 and $14,000.

The boys said they regret chopping down the trees, a prank meant to deprive junior classmates of shade.

“I wouldn’t do it again,” Jackson said. “It was a bad choice.” (Tracy Correa, “Central High, expelled students waging legal battle” (March 16, 2010)

Now, at any given time, my criminal defense practice probably involves anywhere from 40% to 60% juvenile cases. The majority of these cases come to me because of a limited contract I signed to accept a certain number of indigent cases per month. I signed this contract a couple of years after I first started to practice law as a means of insuring that I could at least pay the rent on my office while I was trying to build my own practice; the steady income meant that even if I couldn’t help my wife with our family finances, I could at least cover the very basic needs for my office and stay in practice long enough to build a reputation and clientele. With this contract, the juveniles I represent are typically from lower income families, which for some strange reason means I’m also usually representing minors from minority groups.

I can tell you that in my neck of the woods when a kid causes $7,500 to $14,000 damage to school property, he or she (although almost all of my clients are males) is going to be charged with at least one felony count and the minor is going to be in custody when I first meet him. In many cases, that minor is going to remain in custody until the case is resolved.

For reasons I don’t completely understand, this case is being handled differently. Here, for example, is part of the letter that finally caused me to write about the case:

Enough already! Why so many letters condemning the actions of five high school students who cut down two trees? They have apologized, been punished and offered restitution. But many of the letters still condemn their parents as well. For what? For standing up for their kids after the original school-dictated punishment was escalated?

Obviously, the youngsters made a terrible mistake. But did it merit this level of denunciations and shaming? (Carolee Trefts, “Enough with the trees prank” in Letters to the Editor (March 29, 2010) Fresno Bee, p. B3, col. 3.)

The letter goes on to talk about Wall Street scandals, corrupt congress representatives and the war in Afghanistan, indicating that these are important problems which were allegedly ignored by those now complaining about these “youngsters.”

The “youngsters” are seniors at Central High School — at least one is 18 years old and thus eligible to be charged as an adult. Normally, that’s exactly what would happen. But these kids are not only not apparently charged with any crimes and are not in custody, but they are giving television interviews about the mean school district that expelled them and won’t let them return to class.

In addition, not insignificant segments of the community are rallying behind them and against the school district, as this Letter to the Editor shows. An earlier story I read in the paper edition of the Bee indicated Fresno’s police chief believed it should be left to the school to handle. When the school district violated a court order to allow the students to return, the police refused to enforce the court order. (See the video accompanying this article (2015 update: link no longer worked; removed).)

At first, I thought it must be that the kids were middle-class white kids, but I don’t think that’s it. From what I can tell, two of the kids are white; the other three appear to be Hispanic.

Maybe it’s because the Hispanic kids are getting a free ride based on their association with the white kids. After all, it’s normal for charges in Fresno to be determined by considering with whom the miscreants associate. If, for example, you live in a neighborhood where some of the kids are gang members and you get into trouble with one of them, you’re almost certainly going to be facing a gang enhancement or independent gang charges; it’s a clear-cut case of guilt-by-association. I suppose it’s possible, then, that what we have here is a case of exoneration or, — since those involved are at least being punished by the school system and by the fact that the parents have had to spend money on attorneys in the civil matter — at least a case where the police are staying out of it because white kids are involved.

Is it possible that the involvement of a couple of white kids can provide absolution for all?

Or maybe Fresnans are just feeling generous and compassionate these days.

Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t think the kids should be charged with crimes. It was — felony vandalism, yes — but as they said, it was also a stupid prank. If you read my post from a couple weeks ago, you might guess that I’m in favor of handling the case as it is currently being handled.

Juveniles sometimes do stupid things. More juvenile cases should be handled like this one.