Here came trouble in a lemon V-neck sweater, necktie and pressed khakis.
Joshua Jones, 17, arrived in court on a January morning looking every ounce the fly-right prep student, down to the McDonogh 35 lanyard dangling from his crisp white collar.
“I’m just taking one day at a time,” he said, doe-eyed, repeating a cliche from the pro sports world that he hoped to inhabit.
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When a judge released him from the electronic monitor strapped to his ankle last fall, Josh embraced his newfound freedom — to cut across the field.
“The only thing this kid talks to me about is when he gets to go back to play football,” his attorney, Tom Shlosman, lamented last month. “It just goes to show he can’t wrap his head around the severity of the situation.”
The situation was this: a minimum 10-year sentence for each of two armed robbery counts from a pair of stickups committed one night in 2013.
Police stopped Josh and two McDonogh teammates as they rode their bikes around Gentilly, a week before his 16th birthday. One of the victims, a man whose wallet was swiped at gunpoint on the street, identified Josh under a Franklin Avenue street lamp as the one who pointed the weapon.
According to a report, police also found Josh holding a bag containing the wallet and the LG cellphone of the second victim, who lived nearby.
But as his case lurched forward in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, Josh remained focused on “my passion” — being No. 23 in maroon and Vegas gold, toting the rock for the Roneagles.
“I don’t really know what’s going to happen today,” he said on the drive to the courthouse. “It’s like, whatever happens, happens.”
Hours later, he would fail another drug test for marijuana and return to Orleans Parish Prison, a Hail Mary pass from where he grew up on Gravier Street. The night his father posted his $50,000 bond, Josh strode around the corner to his bed.
By then, he’d joined a swell of juvenile defendants in New Orleans whose cases are transferred to adult court, in a decision that District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro makes almost as a matter of course. And it’s cases like his — armed robberies that carry adult sentences of 10 to 99 years — that largely tell the tale of Cannizzaro’s penchant for removing eligible youths from the purview of a juvenile system that is designed to spare, not punish.
The ‘default venue’
Of the 204 defendants transferred to adult court over Cannizzaro’s first six years in office, 126 — or 62 percent — were in armed robbery cases, according to a New Orleans Advocate analysis. Nearly 90 percent of the armed robberies that Cannizzaro can transfer, he does.
“When a juvenile offender that young sticks a gun in someone’s face and demands his wallet, the difference between an armed robbery and a murder is 3 pounds — the force required to squeeze a trigger — and dumb luck,” Cannizzaro said in a written statement, confirming that he considers adult court the “default venue” for such cases.
Many of those defendants await trial in Orleans Parish Prison, “lying alongside a grown-ass man,” or at least among them, Josh’s father, Derrick Jones, said with a cringe.
The decision in Josh’s case came in a bill of information on Aug. 23, 2013. Charged with him were Davell Jenkins-Gethers, who was 17 and legally an adult, and 16-year-old Jose Valerio, Josh’s backfield mate.
No weapon was recovered. The other victim didn’t see Josh but identified Jose as the one who’d stuck a gun to his head and demanded his phone while a second man pressed a weapon to his back.
“We had just came from football practice that same day; we just riding our bikes in the neighborhood, next thing we know, the police just riding with no lights on,” Josh said of his arrest. “It just felt like the wrong place at the wrong time, you know?”
Jose tried another stickup while out on bail, approaching three women as they fixed a flat tire on Dreux Street, police said. A Southern University at New Orleans officer was helping them change the tire. They traded gunfire, police said, and Jose was killed.
Different policies elsewhere
The range of armed robbery scenarios, some prosecutors say, makes it tricky to decide which accused youths should be treated as adults.
Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick’s office takes a cautious approach to transfers, said Assistant District Attorney Amanda Calogero, head of the office’s Juvenile Division. Decisions are made by “an inner group of supervisors,” usually over a 30-day period that includes further investigation, she said.
“I don’t think it’s a ‘feel’ thing. We’re not having a seance about it,” she said. “We are looking at the evidence, the witnesses, how a juvenile might present to a jury. And we also look at our contact in the past with this juvenile and what we’ve tried to do as far as rehabilitation. Sometimes we have a feeling we’re talking about somebody with serious developmental delays.”
The result is a rate of transfers much lower than in Orleans Parish. Over the past four years, Jefferson Parish has moved 22 of 63 juvenile defendants eligible for transfer to adult court, including those accused of crimes in which state law mandates the move: murder, aggravated rape and aggravated kidnapping.
“Let’s say we’ve got a kid and but for the fact the gun jammed it would have been a murder. That would be something that might sway us a little bit more,” Calogero said. “There are really egregious acts that we weigh a little differently than if one 15-year-old pulled some sort of handgun on another 15-year-old, if one of them found out another kid got a new pair of Nikes and the other kid wanted Nikes. Every case has to stand on its own.”
One big factor in Jefferson Parish that is missing in Orleans Parish: a millage that brings in some $10 million a year for juvenile justice and “therapeutic” programs.
“We always try to keep a juvenile from further penetrating the system,” said Roy Juncker Jr., who runs the parish’s Department of Juvenile Services. “When you get to the point where you’re so deep into the system that you’re transferred into the adult system, that can’t be good for you. You have to let the scale balance out: Is this individual a public safety risk? If so, you have to do the transfer, in my opinion, regardless of what it’s going to do to the child.”
East Baton Rouge Parish also has a far lower transfer rate than Orleans.
“It’s not an easy decision you make,” said Hillar Moore, the district attorney there. “It’s one that we don’t want it to be easy.”
A danger to society?
Cannizzaro is less circumspect, the data show, and gun cases aren’t the only armed robberies he transfers.
The DA’s Office secured an indictment in January against Javonte Bell for holding up a Domino’s pizza driver with a kitchen knife last October, when he was 16, despite a psychologist’s view, apparently in an earlier juvenile case, that Javonte was mentally incompetent.
Two days after the holdup, Javonte was back loitering behind the pizza shop, the kitchen knife in his pocket, police said.
In January, in adult court, two experts recommended he be sent to a Mandeville treatment facility, before facing his 10 to 99 years behind bars.
Cannizzaro’s office, which has a policy not to discuss open cases, declined to explain Javonte’s transfer.
Javonte’s attorney, Timon Webre, said the indictment came days before a new competency hearing scheduled in Juvenile Court.
“That goes to the whole integrity of the process. This child is not a danger to society. This is a child that’s mentally ill. He hears voices,” Webre said. “We’re not talking about someone running up and down the street with a gun in a gang, shooting people.”
Adult convictions also mean higher stakes for repeat offenders, and Cannizzaro’s office usually secures them. During the DA’s first six years in office, 56 percent of juveniles adjudicated as adults on armed robbery charges have received prison sentences, the data show, most often on lesser offenses with sentences under the 10-year minimum for armed robbery. Nearly a third get probation.
Fewer than 1 in 6 are found not guilty or see their cases dismissed. Those figures exclude 13 percent of the cases that remain pending, plus one defendant — Jose — who is dead.
‘Everything going south’
Jose and Josh were tight, Derrick Jones said as he awaited Josh’s trial date, folding laundry at his house in a remote corner of Slidell.
He recalled spoiling Josh, buying him $500 Gucci shoes at Saks on Mardi Gras weekend for good grades, when Josh was 8.
His wife, Josh’s mom, was killed by a car in 2010. Josh screamed at the funeral. His top-notch grades soon slid. He got into fights at McDonogh and was seeing less playing time on the field, his father said.
Derrick Jones would drive Josh, out on bail, across the bridge to school every morning. He later learned Josh then would often walk off campus, missing 81 days.
At home, Josh got the spoils of youth: sharp clothes, expensive bicycles. At one point, he asked for a faster one. His father wondered why.
“Josh is so slick,” his father said, “he can sweet-talk a whale out of water.”
Over winter, Josh sat lamenting his predicament.
?Lately, it just felt like everything going south for me. I don’t know why. First the situation with my mama, then I got to jail,” he said. “Like everything just happening all in one. I’m just wondering, ‘Why me, though?’ ”
Josh stepped into Criminal District Court on Tuesday in shackles, his checked boxers pushing up out the back of his orange jail scrubs. A map of the crime scenes lay on the prosecutors’ table.
He faced at least 15 years if prosecutors tacked on a gun enhancement. But on the eve of trial, they offered a package deal: probation for Davell if he pleaded guilty to simple robbery and an unrelated obstruction charge. Five years for Josh, meaning he could be out of prison at age 20.
No way, he said.
The attorney for Davell warned that he would foist all the blame on Josh, the kid with the gun. Shlosman, knowing the stakes, called in Derrick Jones and a wildcard: Oliver Celestin, a former NFL player who had helped coach the Roneagles.
“I just tried to talk with him and encourage him to try to make the best decision from this time forward,” Celestin said. “He may have been over his head. I don’t think he understood the extremes of the decisions he had to make.”
Josh grudgingly took the deal and stood with Davell before the judge.
“This is a sad day for the court. Two young people in this city had to sit in jail because they couldn’t stop smoking weed. On top of that, you could have been killed, like your friend,” Judge Laurie White scolded the pair.
She asked Josh if he had anything to say.
“I just made a bad decision,” he mumbled.
“All of them.”
Support for this story provided by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Reporter Katy Reckdahl and videographer Caitlin McNally contributed to this story. Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.