The Derrion Albert verdict: Was justice served?

January 13, 2011

No one can have been surprised by the verdict in the Silvanus Shannon case, not after a jury last month returned the exact same result for another defendant, an unnamed minor, in less than half an hour of deliberations: guilty of the first degree murder of Derrion Albert.

This time it took 3 and a half hours for the jury to decide that Shannon killed Albert with malice, deliberately and intentionally, and with extreme disregard for human life. He had stomped repeatedly on Albert’s head after Albert had been knocked helplessly to the ground in a melee on 115th Street, not far from the Agape Community Center in Roseland. Shannon covered his face and cried in court when he heard his fate.

Don’t for a minute think that Eric Carson, Eugene Riley and Lapoleon Colbert—the others awaiting trial for this monstrous crime—will get anything less. The video tape evidence against them—as in Shannon’s case—is simply overwhelming. In Riley’s case, even his mother has already identified him on the tape. "That's Gene. That's my son," Sherry Smith told the Chicago Tribune shortly after the crime. "I'm not going to lie about that."

And so there is a certain satisfaction, in spite of the sadness over lives lost in so many ways, in knowing that justice is playing out in this case, and that someone is being held rightfully responsible for this almost feral killing.

That the tape is so vivid and unambiguous, in spite of Shannon’s lawyers pleadings to the contrary and his own memory loss, is also a relief. We see that for what it is: a strategy, desperate even, to draw sympathy for Shannon, looking dazed with his mouth agape, to perhaps give him a kinder sentence. (Shannon’s lawyer insists he jumped over Albert’s body but did not land on him: the tape is blurred at the moment of impact but Shannon jumps straight up and down.)

But the devil—the devil is in the details. And that devil haunts me every single time I read about or attend this trial or watch the video . Because there are things in the accepted narrative that chafe.

Let’s be clear: Derrion Albert did not deserve to die. But Derrion Albert, who lived neither in The Ville or Altgeld Gardens  (the warring factions) but in a neutral area called 12-3, should have never been there in the first place. The fight had been rumored all day at school—it was, in fact, common knowledge at Fenger High School. And Derrion Albert was not a bystander on his way home when he got attacked.

While that didn’t help Shannon, and it won’t help the three awaiting trial whose acts are undeniable on the tape, it should have helped the unnamed minor who was convicted last month.

If the evidence of our eyes works to convict Silvanus Shannon, then it should also should have worked to give that unidentified minor a break.

Look closely at the video: Albert enters the frame at about 44 seconds. And he is walking toward, not away, from the ruckus. In fact, he is walking into the very heart of the riot, where young men are already wielding railroad ties and bashing the hell out of each other. His book bag is nowhere in sight. And his stride is purposeful. Then he either throws or deflects a punch.

It’s 2 seconds later, as he’s turning around—not running away but turning into the brawl—that he’s hit square on the left side of the head with a railroad tie. The blow is powerful enough to knock Albert off his feet. But he gets up, clearly dazed, and, 2 seconds after that, the unidentified minor punches him, again on the left side of the head. Albert falls and curls into a fetal position. (At about 1:08 on the tape, he sits up but is quickly descended upon by a trio of young men and, seconds later, Shannon is seen jumping on his head.)

Why is this important? The Assistant State's Attorney Matthew Howroyd said the defendant—the minor—“signed Derrion Albert's death certificate" with that punch and "put Derrion in a position he could never recover from."

Except that what is clear on the tape is that what put Derrion Albert in a vulnerable position was the blow on the head from the railroad tie, and what he never recovered from was Shannon’s kicking. Up until then, Albert kept coming back, struggling to stand, to sit up, to crawl. Derrion Albert did not go down easily.

Dr. Hilary McElligot, the pathologist who conducted Albert’s autopsy, refused to pinpoint the unidentified minor’s punch as Albert’s death knell. What she said was that it was impossible to tell which blow killed Albert, but that all contributed to his death.

There is little doubt about that: the youngster’s hit, a flying punch to Albert’s already injured head, surely caused additional damage. And it’s very, very possible that kid, like Albert and so many of the others on 115th Street that day, also knew about the fight and was there with purpose.

But we’ll never know because the young man’s lawyer, Richard Kloak, did not call a single witness on his behalf. Not a friend, a relative, a teacher, a social worker, an eyewitness to the crime or the boy himself. No one.

So now, technically, the boy will be kept in prison until he’s 21—unless he commits any kind of infraction, and then his sentence will likely turn into a lifetime. And what purpose will that serve?

Yes, the murder of Derrion Albert was horrific. And those who committed it should pay. That includes this unidentified minor. But first degree murder, the possibility of life in prison? I don’t think so, not for what he did: Remember, he was a 14 year-old in the middle of a riot who threw one punch. He needs a decent review and appeal (and a new lawyer -- if his lawyer had fought half as hard as Shannon's, that boy might have a chance at rehabilitation, counseling, serious help).

Just look for yourself—put the media hoopla aside and trust the evidence of your own eyes.

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