Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Tale of green, gold, police blue: Color could trap teen behind bars

Maybe I've watched too many crime shows. But a case involving six high school students accused of assaulting a University of Chicago student in Hyde Park two weeks ago seems to be a textbook example of how an innocent black man can end up in the criminal justice system.

The teens are all students at the Chicago Military Academy in Bronzeville. They are charged with assaulting the university student on a Hyde Park street after asking him for $5.

Jemelle Lloyd, 17; Van Epinger, 17; Michael Pleasants, 17; Lawrence Gardner, 17; Armani Carson, 18, and Alexander Tolks, 18, are being charged with attempted robbery -- a felony.

All of the students are African Americans; four of them, including Lloyd, play on the school's basketball team. On the day of their arrests, they were wearing their ROTC uniforms -- gold hoodies and green-and-gold jogging pants.

Lloyd, a solid student with no prior arrest record, who is also captain of the basketball team, says he had nothing to do with the assault.

He claims he had just left his group of friends and was cutting through the park at 55th Street toward a bus stop -- and talking to his mother on a cell phone -- when a University of Chicago police officer rolled up on him in a squad car.

"I started walking through the park to get to 55th and Lake Park where I could catch the bus. The next thing I know, a bunch of University of Chicago cars came speeding through the streets with their sirens going."

Lloyd said he turned around and saw his friends running.

"I kept walking. Then a car pulled up on the curb. The man got out the car with his weapon drawn and yelled: 'Get down!' I started walking toward him with my hands up. He kept yelling for me to get down and I got down. I said: 'Sir, I didn't do nothing.' But he put me and this other guy who wasn't that far from me in the same squad car."

The victim -- who was treated at the hospital and released -- did not identify his alleged attackers, and Lloyd was never put in a lineup. Instead, Lloyd was taken first to a police station at 29th & Prairie and later that night to 26th and California with the other accused students.

"We've got to write y'all up," Lloyd said a police officer told him.

I can't say whether Lloyd is innocent or guilty.

But his mother desperately believes in his innocence, and relatives from as far away as Colorado called me to testify to his character. Lloyd has no gang ties and has never been arrested for anything. From everything I've heard, attempted robbery seems totally out of this young man's sphere.

So I'm concerned that police officers have not done enough to ensure that an innocent teen isn't going down with the guilty ones.

No police lineup
After all, the presumption that a black youth is guilty of criminal activity because he runs when police cars pull up, or because he is on the street near a crime scene, is a presumption that has put innocent black men in prison.

Yet a spokeswoman for the Chicago Police Department defended the police department's decision not to put the teens in a lineup.

"A lineup is not considered due to the fact that the responding officer actually saw the pursuit," said police spokeswoman Monique Bond.

Like everyone else, I want the guilty people to pay for their crimes. But the idea that a police officer could positively identify six fleeing teenagers who were wearing the same uniforms bothers me.

And unfortunately, in these kinds of situations, the guilty parties are pressed to take a plea deal. By then, the offenders will be so desperate to cut a deal, they won't hesitate to give up an innocent.

So Lloyd is knee deep in the kind of trouble that could change the course of his life.

Along with the other teens charged in this case, he has been suspended and likely will be expelled from his high school. On Monday, school officials told Lloyd's mother, Suzette Lloyd, he has to go to an alternative high school at 6040 W. Irving Park.

"I don't even know where that is," the mother told me.

Although the Chicago Board of Education's Uniform Discipline Code does not address criminal charges against students for incidents off school grounds, principals have the discretion to consider those charges and to expel the students before they go to trial.

"Given that this was such a serious allegation, the principal felt it was serious enough to move forward with the expulsion process, but we continue the investigation," said Celeste Garrett, spokeswoman for the Board of Education.

That seems terribly unfair.

We know what happens if Lloyd is indeed guilty. But what happens if the investigation shows that the only thing Lloyd was guilty of that day was being in his school's colors?

How will they put things right?

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