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Judge's wrenching choice: Prison or another chance for teen in killing?

Judge's wrenching choice: Prison or another chance for teen in killing?

The boy before Judge Kenneth Biehn was quiet and withdrawn, an asthmatic whose mother used and sold crack cocaine and whose father was doing time for robbery. At just 14, Kareem Watts stood accused of his own, much more horrific crime: Stabbing to death a neighbor who disrespected his mother.
He had admitted to a psychologist, "I took the knife and stabbed her." So guilt was not in dispute.
The decision facing Judge Biehn was how this case would be handled.
He could allow this boy to be prosecuted and sentenced as an adult, likely meaning decades in prison _ or he could transfer the case to the juvenile system, where the teen would be confined and receive treatment but only until his 21st birthday, when he'd be released onto the streets a free man.
It was a question, really, of second chances. Judge Biehn had to determine whether this kid deserved one.
"The wrong decision in this case could be a fatal one ...," the prosecutor had argued.
It was the kind of tough call that judges and prosecutors across the U.S. regularly confront when juveniles commit violent offenses: How to reconcile demands of "adult time for adult crime" when staring at a baby-faced youngster like Kareem.
State laws typically set out criteria to weigh, such as the child's mental capacity, criminal history, likelihood of benefiting from treatment. And another factor: how best to serve the public interest and protect the community.
In the end, though, judges must rely on their own experience and instincts to make these very difficult choices _ decisions that can pay off, or one day come back to haunt them.
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It happened May 15, 2000. According to court records, Kareem had spent the afternoon hanging around his Morrisville, Pennsylvania, neighborhood, playing video games with friends and smoking pot and "wet," marijuana dipped in embalming fluid.
Around 9:30 p.m., he went to neighbor Darlyne Jules' apartment to borrow her phone. He made a call, and Jules gave Kareem some money, telling the boy to have his mother buy her cigarettes. Kareem would later say he got angry because Jules owed his mother money and instead was shopping for smokes.
"I don't owe her (expletive)," he recalled the woman telling him.
They began to push and shove, and then Kareem saw a knife on a table.
From his bedroom upstairs, Jules' 7-year-old son, Allin, heard his mother screaming his name and pleading, "Get the cops!" When the boy ventured downstairs to check on her, he saw Kareem on top of his mother on the sofa, stabbing her over and over _ some 70 times, police would say.
Just 13 at the time, Kareem became the youngest person in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to be charged with first-degree murder. Under Pennsylvania law, juvenile murder defendants are automatically processed in the adult court system _ unless the defense seeks to transfer the case back to juvenile court.
Kareem's lawyer, Richard Fink, filed a motion for just such a transfer.
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Judge Biehn had never been one to agonize over decisions in his two decades-plus on the bench of the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas outside of Philadelphia. Only once in his career did a ruling leave lingering thoughts of: Was I right?
A 17-year-old honor student had been accused by a 4-year-old of sexual assault. There was no physical evidence, but the judge believed the defendant guilty. A year after Biehn sentenced him to a sexual offender program, the teen admitted his crime.
Some kids, Biehn knew, could change in the juvenile system. Some, no matter what the system did, would remain a threat.
He wasn't sure which way Kareem Watts could go when the boy entered his courtroom for the hearing on his transfer request early in 2001.
Testimony showed the boy had been born two months' premature after his mother abused cocaine and alcohol during her pregnancy. Angry at his mother's drug use and his father's absence, Kareem began acting out. At 7 years old, according to one psychologist's evaluation, Kareem started hitting himself. He once tried to jump out a window.
And there were voices. Kareem told defense psychologist Robert Strochak that he had been hearing voices for as long as he could remember, and Strochak concluded that the voices "were very much in control of him" when Kareem attacked Jules.
"They told me to do it," Kareem said, according to Strochak's evaluation.
Nevertheless, Kareem had never before exhibited severely violent behavior. He'd been disciplined three years earlier for bringing an unloaded pellet gun onto a school bus, but that was the extent of his record.
Biehn considered all of this, and the opinion of Strochak and a county psychologist, both of whom concluded that Kareem seemed treatable in the juvenile system.
Representatives from several adult and juvenile facilities testified about what type of confinement and services Kareem would receive. The main difference was that in the adult system, the "treatment" component could end by age 18 and Kareem would be transferred to an adult prison to serve out his sentence. In the juvenile system, treatment could extend to age 21. But at that time, Kareem would be released, with no requirement to even report to a probation officer.
Prosecutor Gary Gambardella noted that Kareem "could be as bad as he is today or worse."
Biehn recognized that there were no guarantees. Kareem, he said during the hearing, is not "a finished product. No one would suggest that he is, and he may never be. ... No one knows."
By the last day of the proceeding, Biehn had put most of his findings in writing. When testimony was done, he took a 15-minute recess, then returned to the bench to read his decision into the record.
He outlined the facts of the case and spoke of Kareem's troubled background. He noted Kareem's young age, his mental health problems, and his lack of criminal history. He reviewed the psychologists' findings and other testimony.
He then remarked that, in his view, the juvenile system offered far more treatment options and a "realistic opportunity for rehabilitation." Seven years' confinement, combined with treatment, "will provide the best opportunity to make it less likely he will commit an offense when he is ultimately released," he concluded. "That is in the public interest."
The judge ordered the case transferred back to juvenile court.
Within minutes, the attorneys reached an agreement that Kareem would enter the equivalent of a guilty plea.
Before sentencing, Biehn asked the victim's family if they wanted to address the court. They declined, although Jean Lubin, the father of Jules' three children, testified earlier: "The kids, their life will never be the same."
Kareem offered no apology, although Strochak had testified that the boy expressed remorse.
Judge Biehn then pronounced punishment: Kareem would spend the next seven years in a juvenile program called Alternative Rehabilitation Communities. The judge then turned to the boy.
"Kareem, I expect you to do a good job at ARC. Look at me," Biehn instructed. "Do you understand that?"
"Yes, your honor."
"Do everything you can so when you grow up ... you will be a responsible person. You will do your best to do that?"
"Yes, your Honor."
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Kareem started out in a secure facility enclosed with barbed-wire fence. He lived in a 6-by-9 room with a bed, a dresser, a small window covered with bars and a heavy metal door that never was shut.
He attended school and received individual therapy as well as group counseling focusing on such issues as drug and alcohol abuse and anger management.
Every six to nine months, Kareem would go before Judge Biehn, who reviewed his progress and could adjust the boy's rehabilitation plan. After 3 1/2 years at the secure facility, Biehn OK'd Kareem's transition to one of ARC's group homes. The teen lived in a house with about a dozen other young men. He enrolled in community college, and joined the basketball team.
There were setbacks. Kareem dropped some college courses without telling anyone and was given permission to attend a school dance, but when his date backed out he went with friends instead, without approval.
But there were signs of change, too. Kareem began to open up and understand that his new life had to be different. He couldn't go back to the old neighborhood, or watch out for his mother when he needed to watch out for himself.
"It was a long haul," says Kareem's juvenile probation officer, Bill Batty. "But then, he started to have some acceptance. And when he made mistakes, he always bounced back."
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Not long before his 21st birthday this past June, Kareem returned to Biehn's courtroom. Batty read his final report, and the judge deemed the case closed. Then Biehn stepped down from the bench and gave Kareem a hug.
The young man as free _ free to go, and as free of his past as a court and treatment could make him.
Today, Kareem works as a counselor assistant at ARC. He earned the equivalent of a high school degree, and was appointed by the governor's office to sit on a state juvenile justice committee. He declined to be interviewed, but earlier this year told the Bucks County Courier Times: "I know I'm lucky, and I'm grateful. Not many people in my situation get a second chance."
Biehn, now retired, last saw Kareem in November during a visit to ARC. The judge and his wife had lunch with the once-scrawny boy who now stands tall and self-assured.
"He's got a beautiful smile," says Biehn.
Following sentencing that day in 2001, a cousin of Jules told a reporter through tears, "It's not fair." Those feelings linger among the victim's family. Lubin did not return phone messages, but a woman identifying herself as his sister said of Kareem's release: "That's a damn shame. I didn't know they was gonna let him out that soon."
While some question second-chance gambles like Biehn's, Kareem's former lawyer, Fink, called the decision courageous, and right. In adult prison, Kareem "would've been the youngest, smallest person on the cell block. He would've rotted away," Fink says. "But I want to tell you, Kareem was fixed. This boy really turned his life around."
Others, like prosecutor Gambardella and Batty, the parole officer, know that only time can truly tell whether that's true.
Says the prosecutor: "Look, I'm wrong sometimes. This is one of the times I hope I am."


Updated : 2020-12-06 09:41 GMT+08:00