Sunday, September 6, 2009

Credit where it's due

Robert Brundage was a well-loved figure in Toledo.

He was raised here, played the cello in the Toledo Youth Orchestra, attended the University of Toledo, went off to earn a doctorate in biophysics at Brandeis, stayed in Massachusetts where he worked as a scientist and engineer and owned a sound-recording company. A bit over a decade ago, he came back to Toledo.

Toledo loved him for coming back but especially for what he brought back: a commitment to community activism. Social justice, he was there; the environment, he was there; the arts, he was there; education, he was there. And wherever it was, he got there on his bicycle, traveling through the mixed neighborhood where he lived and was known. He embodied what he was and what he did. (See story here.)

And then he was killed.

He was biking home from, naturally, a meeting of the Jobs for Justice Coalition. Then, according to police and prosecutors, a 15-year old kid, Dai'Lahntae Jemison, punched him once, knocked him to the ground, and stole his bicycle. When he hit the ground, Brundage suffered a brain injury. Two weeks later, he died. (Story here.)

Shock and outrage and horror.
The sort of crime we call senseless and the sort of loss we call tragic. And Dai'Lahntae Jemison, who had been charged with aggravated robbery was now charged with murder.

Because Jemison was 15, the case went to Juvenile Court where the ostensible goal is rehabilitation rather than to adult court where the ostensible goal is to punish the hell out of people. But because he was 15, and because the crime was murder, Jemison could have been transferred to the adult system. All it required was a showing of probable cause (that he might plausibly be found guilty) and he was
"not amenable to care or rehabilitation within the juvenile system, and the safety of the community may require that the child be subject to adult sanctions." (The relevant statute is here.)

The prosecutor asked for the transfer, as the prosecutor always does. The Toledo Blade had a lead editorial explaining that Jemison should go into the adult system so that he could be sent to prison for life. (It could have been life without parole, though the Blade doesn't mention that.)

The pressure was on. And then something that just shouldn't be newsworthy happened. The judge, Connie Zemmelman, did the right thing. She considered the evidence before her (and good for Joanne Rubin, who represented Jemison and made a first-rate record), considered what the law required of her, and determined to keep him in the juvenile system. The state didn't prove he wasn't amenable to rehabilitation there.

This is no small thing for an elected judge in a high profile case in a community as small as Toledo and with a lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key editorial policy in the local paper.

But there's this thing we call the Rule of Law. Judges aren't supposed to decide cases based on emotions, on the roar of the crowd, on the basis of newspaper editorials. The fact that Brundage was an exceptionally decent man or that the Old West End where he lived and where the crime occurred has too high a crime rate or that kids need to be warned that this sort of thing shouldn't happen has nothing to do with what Connie was to decide.

She was to look at specific factors and the evidence before them, and weigh them. And she did.

In her opinion explaining why she refused to transfer Jemison, she wrote this:
I feel compelled to acknowledge the tragedy of losing any life to such a senseless act. This is especially notable where the life taken involves someone like Mr. Brundage who has been a tremendous asset to our community. This act of violence will have a lifelong effect on Mr. Brundage's survivors, friends, and on Dai'Lahntae Jemison. These considerations are certainly relevant at the time of the ultimate disposition in this case - but they are not pertinent to the question of whether Dai'Lahntae Jemison is amenable to treatment in the juvenile justice system.

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