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Scott Simon Essay: The vicious circle of Chicago violence

When Derrick Lemon was 8 years old in 1994, he saw two boys throw his 5-year-old brother, Eric Morse, out of a window of the Chicago housing project in which they lived.

Derrick tried to stop them. But the boys bit and scratched him. He ran down 14 flights of stairs to try to catch his little brother. But Eric died.

The boys, who were 10 and 11, also stabbed and beat Eric Morse and became the youngest people in U.S. history to be jailed for murder.

The case shocked and saddened people around the world. A fund was started for Derrick Lemon, to help support a troubled boy who had tried to save his brother, and whose mother was strung out on drugs.

Derrick Lemon is 24 now. This week, he was sent to prison for 71 years for murdering a man named Illya Glover. Derrick Lemon was choking his own aunt at a family gathering when Illya Glover, a neighbor, tried to stop him. Derrick shot him.

Derrick Lemon's attorneys argued that he had grown up a casualty of a singularly cruel crime. But Judge Thomas Hennelly told his courtroom, "People experience tragedy in this building every day, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers . . . It doesn't give someone carte blanche to act like a bully and a brute and act like he's above the law."

And Illya Glover's daughter Crystal asked Derrick, "Why did you do this to my dad?. . . You know how it feels to lose a loved one . . ."

Derrick Lemon got more than $1 million after his family sued the Chicago Housing Authority for not securing the windows in the housing project. But even before his brother's death he had skipped school, picked fights, and ran with gangs. He was convicted of burglary when he was 18 and got probation. While awaiting trial for the murder of Illya Glover, he was arrested for threatening someone with a gun.

Illya's sister, Gail Glover, said of Derrick Lemon, " . . . he got all this money and he could have done something . . . Instead he wanted to hang out on the corner."

Justice required the judge to deliver a sentence that will prevent Derrick Lemon from hurting or killing another human being, and to levy the most severe punishment possible in Illinois for the worst crime. Illya Glover's family may point out that it's still hardly as harsh as murder.

But you can look at Derrick Lemon and wonder how he might have stopped himself from leaping headlong into the same spiral of violence that killed the brother he had once tried so bravely to save. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.

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