Day of reckoning: CHS teens face the music
There is one more aggravation for the four college students assaulted by city teenagers in January who went to Charlottesville Juvenile and Domestic Court June 4 for the sentencing of their attackers: they couldn’t hear a darn thing.
Only the defendants, their attorneys, and their families standing in front of Judge Susan Whitlock could hear clearly what was going on. The rest of the courtroom gauged from the body language of the six Charlottesville High teens– who gained national notoriety when they attacked nine UVA students and one Piedmont Virginia Community College student, allegedly for looking white– whether the outcome favored the defendants– or not.
“That was frustrating because, as a victim, I wanted to hear what was going on,” says Ben Bateman, who was attacked January 12. “Some didn’t understand what the sentences were.”
The courtroom can be pretty easily divided along color lines: the assailants and their families are black– except for one white female charged with a misdemeanor for driving a getaway car– and the victims and their supporters arewhite. Both groups seem to eye each other warily.
The first defendant stands in front of the judge wearing droopy red shorts. He is joined by his mother, neatly attired in a white blouse and navy slacks. The boy pleads guilty to felony malicious wounding by mob in the January 12 attack that left UVA student James McCarter “beaten to a bloody pulp,” as Bateman puts it, with a broken cheek and needing more surgery in early August.
McCarter stands in front of the bench, too, as the judge orders probation for the CHS teen, 100 hours of community service, and restitution of the victim’s medical expenses. She also instructs the teen to have no contact with the victims or his co-defendants.
The sentences are similar for the other minor players in the assaults, and the white girl gets 90 days of probation that could lead to erasure of her conviction for the misdemeanor.
At a recess, the bailiff reminds attendees to remove gum from their mouths.
The real suspense in the courtroom is whether the major players in the assaults will do time. The first major player, a tall youth with a football player physique, took part in four of the five assaults. He faces the judge with an entourage that includes his mother and two other adults.
Elizabeth Killeen, assistant commonwealth’s attorney, asks for six months’ incarceration as her boss, Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman, looks on from the front row.
The youth admits to the judge: “What I did was uncalled for. A lot of things in my head were wrong.”
He turns toward the courtroom where four victims are seated. “I’m sorry if I hurt anybody,” he says.
Bateman, a rising fourth-year English major, parses that apology critically. “A, it’s not ‘if’; and B, it’s not ‘anybody.’ You did hurt specific individuals.”
Killeen asks the defendant if he understands that his victims suffered a broken cheekbone, a concussion, and had to have counseling.
The young man’s mother pleads for her son. She describes the hardships he’s faced, how his father died, and how she split up with the teen’s stepfather. She tells her reaction to her son’s violent activities: “I was totally shocked.”
In a choked voice, she tells how the teen’s nine-year-old brother looks up to him, and she dabs tears from her eyes.
The court waits while Judge Whitlock scribbles away, with six people standing in front of her. Richmond defense attorney Arnold Henderson shifts his weight several times. “Quiet” intones the bailiff, as five minutes stretch to 10. The air conditioning in the room casts a noticeable chill. Chapman passes a note to Killeen.
Finally Judge Whitlock begins to speak. She looks serious, but she’s inaudible, except for unconnected words such as “probation” and “restitution.”
The mother nods her head when the judge says something about school. Sports are mentioned. More nodding from the boy’s family standing at the bench.
The teen’s party files outside into the warmth of a June day. While declining to comment, the boy’s mother does acknowledge that they’re pleased with the house arrest sentence. After all, the high school senior was looking at doing time.
Things don’t go so well for his codefendant, the feisty female who took part in all five attacks.
She stands in front of the judge with her mother, her wire-rimmed glasses belying her penchant for violent encounters. The girl wears a crisp white blouse; her mother is somberly attired in a black suit. The Reverend Alvin Edwards, wearing a snazzy embroidered short-sleeved shirt, testifies on her behalf and then watches from the audience to see what happens to this errant member of his flock.
The girl tearfully reads a letter of apology that doesn’t sway Bateman. “She tended to focus on herself,” he says. “It was a solipsistic apology.”
Killeen recommends the same sentencing she wanted for the girl’s male cohort. “She’s not fully acknowledged her full role in these attacks,” says the prosecutor.
Defense attorney Jim Summers argues that there’s a difference between bashing people and “voyeuristically” watching the attacks as one would a schoolyard fight. Rather than a “craven person,” Summers characterizes his client’s behavior as “youthful inexperience.”
Davin Rosborough, who also was assaulted January 12, has a problem with that reasoning. “I’ve never seen systematic violence like that as part of growing up,” he says.
The 20-year-old PVCC student who was beaten up and robbed at Grady Avenue on January 18 is not impressed with that defense strategy, either. “Even a five-year-old knows that’s wrong,” she says.
Summers says the CHS girl has been accepted at Virginia State University, and that her goal is to walk down the aisle and receive her high school diploma.
That dream is not to be.
Judge Whitlock is unmoved by the girl’s remorse. She says the defendant “has a terrible attitude” and is always in conflict with her teachers. “She doesn’t take responsibility for her actions,” she notes. “Her mom usually stands up for her, even when she’s in the wrong.” The judge sentences the girl to six months incarceration in the Department of Juvenile Justice, with a review July 23.
The male who’s already been sentenced for his role in four of the five attacks sticks around, and he looks serious as the female ringleader’s sentence is read. A bailiff escorts the girl and her mother out of the courtroom.
Bateman is not thrilled with the male perp’s sentence and would have liked to see him spend some time in jail. “Even if he was more cooperative and forthcoming, he did a lot more damage than she did,” says Bateman, who suffered lacerations, black eyes, and bruised ribs that took a long time to heal.
Ben Bateman was attacked near his dorm. A guy ran across the street yelling and knocked him down, and two others kicked him while he was on the ground. Seeing headlights from an approaching car, the attackers ran away. “What if that car hadn’t come?” asks Bateman.
The petite PVCC student isn’t pleased with the sentences either. Even six months after she was attacked, she still can’t sleep through the night without nightmares. “They did a great job of making me afraid of black people, which I never was before,” she says.
Rosborough is the more forgiving of the victims: he thinks the sentences were pretty fair. “No one was given penalties that will mess up their lives, but they still have to pay,” he explains.
A rising fourth-year student in African-American studies, Rosborough attended five of the community meetings organized in the wake of the attacks. Physically, he’s fine, and he doesn’t think about the attack too much anymore.
But the emotional side is much harder to deal with, and the sentencing has left him with questions he still can’t answer: “What’s fair for them? How much should I blame them? Should I forgive them?”
And then there’s the question that puzzles everyone: “What spurred them to do it?” asks Rosborough.
Outside the Juvenile Court, a young black male is on a cell phone, spreading the news of the sentences to a friend.
“That’s bullcrap,” says his companion, a young black female, to no one in particular.