At 77, Jackleen Duckworth holds little sympathy for the teenage foursome who carjacked her last month. One of them pointed a pistol at her head when she pulled up in the handicapped parking spot at her home the night after Mardi Gras.
“I’m going through a bad, bad time about it. Whatever they do to them, it won’t be too much,” she said. “I have no problem with them being tried as adults.
“They did an adult crime, and at 14 years old, if he was mine, he would have been in his house. If he would have allowed me the opportunity to get out of my car, I would have put that pepper spray on him.”
The spray was clipped to the keychain dangling from the ignition of her 2011 Chevrolet HHR, a crossover SUV with manageable payments.
“I never had a chance to turn the car off,” she said. “And they totaled it.”
Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s penchant for prosecuting 15- and 16-year-old criminal suspects in adult court — at far higher rates than other state prosecutors — has stirred a caustic public debate between him and City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who chairs the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, over what should be done with youths accused of serious crimes.
Agreement to create a new “working group” brokered by City Council President Jason Williams may have only delayed a council vote on a nonbinding resolution from Guidry that urges the district attorney to slow his transfer of young defendants from Juvenile Court to Criminal District Court.
In the meantime, the district attorney still takes a hard line on cases like Duckworth’s carjacking. And most of the youthful miscreants who find themselves in adult court in New Orleans are accused of armed robbery, records show.
Amid a war of words and statistics, the debate over Cannizzaro’s tactic largely revolves around young armed robbers — from bumbling groups on a stick-up lark to more sinister marauders — and whether they warrant trials in adult court or a shot at juvenile rehabilitation.
Three of the four teens accused of robbing Duckworth and then wrecking her car while being tailed by police showed up before Criminal District Court Judge Camille Buras last week.
JA’quan Brown, 16, wore leaden eyelids, Orleans Parish jail scrubs and sandals on his size-12 feet. Tylor Ford, a lanky 15-year-old, wore the bright yellow of the city’s Youth Study Center. Louis Lebanks, the dreadlocked third defendant, is 17; an adult under the law, he too wore orange jail scrubs.
Missing was the boy whom police say Duckworth pointed to as the one who “put the firearm to her head, demanded the keys to her vehicle and ordered her out her car” on Fitzhenry Court.
The police report said Duckworth identified that boy as 14-year-old Tevin Smith, although she insisted in a phone interview that the 17-year-old with dreadlocks held the gun.
Smith presumably remains under the watch of Juvenile Court, where proceedings are largely closed. For 14-year-olds like him, judges must hold hearings and determine “by clear and convincing proof” that there is “no substantial opportunity for the child’s rehabilitation” before granting a transfer to adult court.
A different story
Cannizzaro’s office has largely shied away from even trying to transfer 14-year-olds through that elaborate process, which involves a panel of experts. The district attorney has secured just one transfer of a 14-year-old in his seven years in office, from a handful of tries.
It’s a different story with 15- and 16-year-olds such as Ford and Brown, who on March 10 became two of the latest young suspects to face adult consequences under a long-running campaign by the district attorney to leave little to chance in Juvenile Court.
Prosecutors plucked Brown and Ford from Juvenile Court with a grand jury indictment that charged each of the three teens with armed robbery. That charge carries a minimum 10-year prison sentence, with a cap of 99 years. Juvenile Court’s purview, by contrast, ends at age 21, meaning a 16-year-old kept in the youth system could do no more than five years in juvenile lockup. At the district attorney’s request, a judge set bail for the three teens at $250,000 apiece.
A Juvenile Court judge previously had found no probable cause, at least with Brown, for his arrest on the armed robbery count, instead finding probable cause for carjacking, public defender Russell Barksdale told Buras. Unlike armed robbery, carjacking is not on the list of 14 specific crimes for which the district attorney has the discretion to move young defendants to adult court.
The indictment, however, trumped that decision.
Brown was free when he arrived at his first adult court appearance on March 18. He wore a purple tie at half-staff as he held his arms back to be cuffed. He would be taken and held at the Orleans Justice Center — the new jail — despite multiple orders from Buras to remand him to the city-run Youth Study Center.
For a while, he was on suicide watch, said his mother, Maquelle Brown, 36, after he answered in the affirmative when asked if he’d ever tried to kill himself.
As a kid living near the drug-infested intersection of Washington Avenue and Danneel Street in Central City, JA’quan Brown once took a kitchen knife to his arms and hands, his mother said.
“He had been bullied. He didn’t want to fight, and I told him I was going somewhere, to the store, and to clean his room or something. He stabbed himself 13 times,” she recalled.
“My son is not the type of child … he don’t fight. He don’t like to fight at all,” she said, expressing fear for his safety. “You have to push him and push him and push him, and even then, at his limit, he still don’t fight.”
She said she was told by a court official that the Youth Study Center had no more room for juveniles whose cases had been transferred to adult court.
“There’s nothing I can do right now. I can’t explain the feeling to you,” she said. “How are we any better to treat people a certain kind of way?”
‘It was chaos’
The carjacking took place in a gated development off Morrison Road late on Feb. 10. The time: amateur hour.
The security gate was broken, Duckworth said.
“I just had two knee surgeries. Upon me getting out of the car — I never turned the car off — two suspects approached me,” she said. “One asked for money. I told him, ‘I don’t have no money,’ and one of them asked for the key. I told them the damn keys were in the car already. When I turned, the 17-year-old had the gun pointed at my head. From then on, it was chaos.”
The first call to 911, from Duckworth, came in at 11:07 p.m., a police report states.
New Orleans Police Department officers soon spotted Duckworth’s car as it drove the wrong way down Chef Menteur Highway. The officers pulled the car over and told the occupants to open the window and raise their hands, the report says. The driver stuck his head out, hit the gas and sped off, the report states.
Officers tracked the car as it made four turns before the driver hit a curb at Dwyer Road and Mayo Boulevard, wrecking the car. The teens jumped out and scrambled.
Police caught up with Brown as he tried to scale a nearby fence, the report says. Officer Brandon Coleman told Brown to stop, and he did. Brown turned, saw officers with their guns pointed at him and tossed a gun he held in his right hand over the fence, the report states.
Ford and Smith were arrested at gunpoint in separate locations nearby. Someone had called police to report a person knocking at their door about 75 yards from the crash. When officers arrived, Lebanks strolled over and asked one cop if he could borrow his cellphone. Police handcuffed him.
Duckworth thinks the teens planned to commit more crimes with her car. Police told her they found gloves inside, she said, though the initial report doesn’t mention them.
The report says Duckworth identified Lebanks, Ford and the 14-year-old Smith in a “show-up” lineup on Mayo Boulevard, but she couldn’t identify Brown.
He gave himself away, according to police, when he said, “She can’t identify me.”
Police say Brown couldn’t have known the gender of the victim through the glare of the spotlight shining on his face.
A challenged childhood
His face, with the droopy eyelids for which Maquelle Brown said her son had corrective surgery, was cause for bullying in Central City, she said.
“He was really getting picked on, people calling him disabled. He has a form of dyslexia,” she said. “He tried to help people, and it gets him turned on by other people. If a kid’s getting picked on or bullied, he’d try to help that kid, but it’d only be cause for him to get bullied more.”
When he got in trouble, she said, it was for trying to fit in.
“He likes to talk to people. It’s easy to get caught up in other people’s mix,” she said. “He was nerdy. He loved science and computers. He didn’t wear pants hanging down. He was neatly dressed. He’s different. He’s really different.”
The family left New Orleans for downtown Dallas after a few days at the Morial Convention Center following Hurricane Katrina, she said. They moved back to New Orleans East in 2010 or 2011.
For a while, Maquelle Brown ran a day care center while raising her kids. JA’quan is the third of her four sons, behind a pair of 19-year-old twins.
He got caught stealing a cellphone once and last year was found in possession of a stolen portable speaker, she said, receiving Juvenile Court diversion.
Last summer, he went off to attend the National Guard’s Youth Challenge Program, an alternative school for teen dropouts and troubled children held near Shreveport.
He returned in January, graduating from the program but still lacking a GED. Maquelle Brown said she planned to secure legal emancipation for her son so he could enlist early in the military.
JA’quan returned from the National Guard program with a take-charge attitude, she said.
“Little brother doing big things!” he liked to say.
“After the program he became a leader in my home: ‘Y’all need to do better.’ He was real confident he would get his GED. He was going into the military,” Maquelle Brown said. “He challenged everybody to push-ups, teaching my daughter how to defend herself.”
She said her son was due home for curfew and running late the night police busted him. She got the call about his arrest at 2:30 a.m.
His massive Adidas sat last week on a plastic tub in the front room of the family’s St. Roch neighborhood half-double, across the street from Interstate 10.
Maquelle Brown said she grew up abused in foster care, a victim of rape and armed robbery.
“I don’t condone the crimes. I think the persons involved should be handled accordingly. But it needs to be humane. It’s unjust to say, ‘I’m going to throw ’em in with the wolves,’ ” she said.
“Taking 20 years of their life at such an age, they’re going to become a prey, or they’re going to have to become a predator to survive. That’s not justice.”
War of words
The political wrangling between Guidry and Cannizzaro boils down to how best to handle stick-ups like the one that victimized Duckworth, leaving her seeking both justice and transportation.
“I am very angry. I’m very upset. I’m without a car, and I’m not able to even buy a car,” she said.
In New Orleans, armed robberies make up 62 percent of all youth crimes that Cannizzaro’s office kicks up to adult court, according to a New Orleans Advocate analysis of juvenile transfer decisions over several years. Another 26 percent of the transfers from 2009 to 2014 were for murder or attempted murder charges. Just 3 percent were for rapes.
Fewer than 1 in 10 transfers involved other enumerated crimes — aggravated burglary, for instance — which state law grants prosecutors carte blanche authority to shift to adult court, the analysis found.
When it comes to armed robbery, Cannizzaro has opted to transfer 90 percent of the eligible cases.
“With respect to juveniles charged with armed robbery, this District Attorney’s Office begins its analysis with the belief that adjudication in Criminal District Court is more appropriate,” Christopher Bowman, spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office, told The Advocate last year. “The DA believes that a 16-year-old armed robber is no less dangerous than a 20-year-old armed robber.”
The indictment against Brown, Ford and Lebanks came down a month after the carjacking, on March 10 — the same day Cannizzaro fired off a letter to the City Council, dismissing his critics as ill-informed.
Six days later, the three defendants first appeared before Buras, two of them still without attorneys.
Just how Cannizzaro’s office determined the two juveniles belong in adult court is uncertain, and that uncertainty has fed Guidry’s criticism. Bowman declined to comment, citing office policy against discussing specific cases.
Cannizzaro has said he looks at both the offense and the history of the juvenile defendant, among other factors.
A recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center describes Cannizzaro as a strident outlier in Louisiana and nationwide, bucking a wider trend to entrust all but the most unruly young criminals to the less punitive juvenile justice system.
Guidry and other advocates want the district attorney to spell out a process for vetting young criminal suspects before shuttling them to adult court, from where judges in Louisiana have no power to send them back to Juvenile Court.
Those advocates focus on the relative merits of juvenile jails versus adult prisons, and on various programs aimed at youths that aren’t available for adult felons.
They point to the SPLC report, which found that in 60 percent of transfer cases, young suspects in New Orleans don’t wind up serving longer sentences than the upper limit of Juvenile Court detention. The main difference is that those who land behind bars find themselves doing their time in the adult prison system.
“If these sentences had been imposed in the juvenile system, they would have been accompanied by age-appropriate rehabilitative services, education and psychological treatment,” the report said. “But none of these services are provided in the adult system, which means these young people emerge from adult facilities as convicted felons without the benefit of programs or developmental opportunities that can help them succeed when they return to the community.”
A soft touch?
Cannizzaro cited his own figures to suggest that Juvenile Court — where all cases are tried by judges, not juries — has too soft a touch. Of the approximately 1 in 5 teens whom his office left in Juvenile Court on allegations of murder, attempted murder, armed robbery and rape, three-quarters were acquitted, had their cases dismissed or received suspended sentences, according to the district attorney.
Those numbers also may indicate that the cases Cannizzaro left in Juvenile Court were relatively weak. But in a tart Feb. 22 letter to Guidry, the district attorney wrote that it “appears that the crux of the disagreement between you and me is our respective levels of faith in the Juvenile Court and (the Office of Juvenile Justice).”
The district attorney argues that critics have no clue how his screening process works.
He also says they overstate his inclination to “rubber stamp” transfers. He says he largely ignores a pool of lesser offenses for which he could transfer juvenile suspects at will, though both sides have difficulty producing solid data on the total pool of possible transfers.
To back up his claim he uses discretion in deciding on transfers, the district attorney provided NOPD juvenile arrest figures to the City Council.
By that count, his office has transferred just 19 percent of juveniles arrested for the 14 crimes that give him the transfer option for 15- and 16-year-olds.
But those arrest numbers likely overestimate the population of transfer-eligible teens.
The NOPD figures include all arrests of juveniles for aggravated battery, for instance, though only those involving firearms or second offenses make that crime ripe for transfer, and then only if the offender is 15 or 16.
Similarly, residential burglary is a crime that can land 15- and 16-year-olds in adult court only upon a second offense. The arrest figures don’t separate those cases out.
In 2015, those two categories accounted for 41 of the 116 transfer-eligible arrests cited by Cannizzaro. Many of those 41 arrested juveniles may not, in fact, have been eligible for transfer, meaning Cannizzaro’s overall transfer rate is likely higher than he claims.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center study, Cannizzaro’s office prosecuted 83 percent of eligible 15- and 16-year-olds in adult court from 2011 to 2014 — a figure that includes none of the crimes for which it takes a second offense to make a youth eligible for transfer.
In any case, Cannizzaro doesn’t really dispute the notion that his office leads the state in juvenile transfers, though he quibbles with the data that the SPLC used to find that his office transfers five times as many youths as in East Baton Rouge Parish, which sees more armed robberies than New Orleans.
In the cases of 15- and 16-year-olds who reach the screening stage for a transfer, the district attorney acknowledges that 4 out of 5 go to the adult court at Tulane and Broad.
On March 18, Buras assigned lawyers for Brown’s two co-defendants in the armed robbery case, while Brown’s attorney geared up to argue for a reduction in his $250,000 bail.
Maquelle Brown said her son, who used to shill around the neighborhood for odd jobs, doesn’t appear likely to be leaving adult jail anytime soon.
He’s next due in court on April 15, eight days before his 17th birthday.
“It doesn’t look good at the moment,” she said.