When police arrested 13-year-old Yuvain Watson for murder, he stood less than 5 feet tall and weighed close to 100 pounds. He had been born to a cocaine-addled mother who gave him away to his aunt. He was yanked from that home when police discovered baggies upon baggies of crack in the basement. Yet Yuvain never made much trouble. The extent of his rap sheet, covering the nine years he subsequently spent in state care, was a single fight in the first grade. Psychologist Lanni Pryor-Brown, who had been meeting with Yuvain on and off since he was 9, determined that despite his hard luck childhood, he bore few scars of abandonment.
Pearl Robinson, Yuvain's foster mother of eight years, offered her Lithonia home to at least 21 foster children up until 2001. Yuvain was her favorite. The babyish trombone player with espresso-shaded skin managed "to get some of the early nurturing he needed, despite his chaotic environment," Robinson said in documents later filed in DeKalb County Superior Court. She wanted to adopt the boy.
On the afternoon of May 19, 2001, at the house on Woodyhill Drive, Robinson told the oldest of her four foster children to keep an eye on things for a minute. She ran out to Kroger -- violating a state rule never to leave the children unattended. Police and state social workers would place the time she left the house at around 4:15 p.m.
Fifteen minutes later, the 15-year-old foster girl called Robinson's cell phone; what she said prompted Robinson to turn her Lincoln Navigator around and race home.
She found the children in the kitchen. The baby, 20-month-old Kentoya, was lying unconscious on the floor. The 15-year-old had called 911 and was trying to give CPR. An ambulance took Kentoya to Hughes Spalding Children's Hospital in Atlanta. She died a few hours later, from blunt force trauma to the head.
A DeKalb police detective showed up at Robinson's a few hours later. He wanted to question the children -- especially Yuvain, who was the last one to be alone with Kentoya.
It's unclear what Yuvain told the detective, but according to court documents his story changed in subsequent interviews.
He later said he didn't explain everything at first because he was afraid, according to a pre-sentencing report filed with the court. "People started asking questions," he said, "hard questions, with big words I didn't understand."
He said that after Robinson left for Kroger, Kentoya started crying. It was her naptime. He said he was going to put her to sleep in his room but that the crying wouldn't stop. So he held the baby by the waist and started spinning in circles to "make Kentoya smile." He said she started to laugh. Then her head struck the side of the bunk bed. It hit "pretty hard," was how he told it.
Four days after Kentoya died, police charged Yuvain with her murder.
What might Yuvain have been thinking when he started swinging the little girl around his room -- or worse, pushed her, hit her or intentionally slammed her head into the bedpost? Was he out to hurt her? To kill? This seventh-grader for whom there is no record of serious violence -- was he, with his child's mind, intending to take another child's life?
And for that, did he grow in a single day into an adult?
In Georgia, the answer to the last question is a firm yes.
State legislators voted in 1994 to require that children between the ages of 13 and 16 be sent to adult court if they commit what legislators dubbed "the seven deadly sins" -- murder, voluntary manslaughter, rape, aggravated sodomy, aggravated child molestation or armed robbery. If convicted, they must serve a minimum of 10 years in adult prison.
Since the law's inception, 3,700 teens have been charged as adults. Some of them were sent down to juvenile court due to "extraordinary cause." Others pleaded guilty to lesser charges or await trial. About a tenth sit in adult prison, where, unlike juvenile detention centers, there's not even a token attempt at rehabilitation.
Trey Ross is among them. When he was 15, Ross and his two 19-year-old friends were arrested for snatching a woman's purse at gunpoint. Ross, who claimed he did not wield the gun, received a 10-year prison sentence for armed robbery. Immanuel Williams is also in prison for a crime he committed at 15. He shot a 39-year-old man in what he claimed was self-defense. He's serving 12 years for voluntary manslaughter. Then there's 15-year-old Jonathan Miller, who punched a 13-year-old in the back of the head after the two boys agreed to an after-school duel. The punch proved fatal. Miller's serving life.
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