The boy changed the name of his essay three times. It started out as The Clown That Made Nobody Laugh.
Then The Clown Man.
Now, as Anthony Savage stood nervously reading his story to his class, he called it The Truth Don't Always Set You Free.
One kid had read an essay about basketball. Another had told the class about his birthday party. Anthony's story was about something that he'd thought about almost every day for three years.
Chuck swung the bat and hit my brother . . .
Anthony kept his eyes on the paper.
My brother grabbed his pocketknife and stabbed him . . .
He couldn't look up.
After a while they came and told us Chuck had died . . .
When Anthony was 9, he watched his then 21-year-old brother, Shawn, stab a man who had 19 clown tattoos. Shawn was now in prison, Anthony told the class, for protecting his family. For using self-defense.
My brother is my best friend. I did nothing but tell the truth but the truth doesn't matter.
Anthony shuffled back to his desk.
• • •
One day recently, Anthony decided to sit down and write a letter to the governor of Florida.
He picked out a fancy cursive font on his family's laptop computer. He planned to attach his class essay.
Anthony was there when it happened. He saw the whole thing. But no judge or jury ever heard him tell his story. Maybe he could tell the governor.
Anthony lives in a home where he is loved but not always shielded from life's jagged edges. His mother is a former addict. When you bring up his dad, he looks at his feet, grows silent, wipes at his eyes. There's nothing to say; he doesn't see him.
There's a former boyfriend of his mom's, a man named Lou, whom he loved but lost.
And there's Shawn.
Anthony remembers his brother hoisting him onto his shoulders, taking him into the woods and building him a house of sticks. Shawn called it Tarzan's house.
There's Shawn walking him along one of those caged footbridges, telling him this was the place where Ninja Turtles fight.
Later as he grew up, his brother would tell him to do his chores, clean his room, stay out of their mother's hair.
His brother smoked pot. Anthony knows this. But he never did it in front of him.
When the state threatened to take the kids away once, Shawn asked to become his guardian.
"He was always there," Anthony says.
Anthony has bipolar disorder. He goes to a school for children with emotional problems. He plays football, baseball and video games and has made honor roll for the past three years.
He writes more than he talks.
From his fourth-grade journal: My favorite book is where the red fern grose I would like to visit Itale and Japan I don't like my sisters . . . i hate when people tell me what to do I love the library I like history I think slavery is rong I don't think people should be juged.
He acknowledges that he's really good probably 75 percent of the time and the other 25 percent, well, he could be bad and maybe even get in trouble.
Anthony is still trying to figure out right from wrong at a time when his understanding of truth and justice is mostly black and white.
And the stabbing of Chuck Dale Jones — the 44-year-old whom his brother killed — is full of gray areas that he can't see.
• • •
Here is Anthony's story:
This is how we met Chuck.
Mom was having a cookout. Chuck showed up with Ronny. He lived in the neighborhood.
Right away my Mom didn't like him.
He had these clown tattoos. Some had skull faces and knives with dripping blood. One tattoo said "Clown Man." One of Shawn's friends said they were killer clown tattoos.
After the cookout, Chuck kept coming over, kept calling. He asked me to go swimming and fishing.
Mom told Shawn to tell him to stop coming over. But he kept coming. He'd drive by day and night, real slow. He went to my brother's work and stared at him through the windows. A neighbor said she saw him standing outside our house at 3 in the morning. He threw a firecracker at me from his car.
We called the cops but when they got there, he was gone.
The day it happened, me and my brother's friends were hanging outside listening to music and my mom was taking a walk.
We heard my mom yelling for my brother. We all ran down the street to her.
She told my brother that Chuck was coming after her saying that he was going to have us kids taken away.
Chuck had a bat in his hand. He told my mom maybe he might "take her out."
My brother told my mom to go call the police. Then my brother walked toward Chuck. They were yelling back and forth.
My brother always told me never swing first. But when someone swings at you, you can fight back.
Chuck hit my brother first with the bat. The cops came with rifles and pistols and surrounded our house. They arrested my brother for second-degree murder.
• • •
Anthony told his version to the police. Then he told it to lawyers during a deposition.
"No one listened or paid attention," he says. "It's frustrating. My brother acted in self-defense."
There were four other witnesses to the stabbing — all with different stories. Of those four, two were friends of Shawn. One was a friend of Chuck. Another was a woman who saw part of it from the front window of her house about 40 feet away.
Sorting through all their statements, it is impossible to nail down exactly what happened.
Some witnesses said Shawn threw the first punch. Others said Chuck hit Shawn first. Several of the witnesses changed key elements of their stories multiple times during police interviews and depositions. Others said they were on drugs and couldn't remember.
So how do you figure out if it was self-defense?
The law says you can defend yourself with force if you face a credible threat. But a punch does not beget a gunshot. So what about the 2-foot-long wooden dowel that Chuck was carrying?
"A stick is considered a weapon," said Ron Kazoroski, a former Fort Walton Beach public safety director who has written books about self-defense. "That would fall under aggravated battery. But none of this stuff is black and white. A lot of it is gray area."
Police say self-defense is meant for those who are attacked. Shawn "exceeded the boundaries of self-defense," said Maj. Mike Puetz of the St. Petersburg Police Department.
Shawn may have been trying to protect his mother, but he had the opportunity to go back to his home and call police. Instead he approached Jones and confronted him while carrying a knife.
Shawn's mother, Berae Fink, said Shawn always carried the small pocketknife and that he never meant for the confrontation to turn violent. He just wanted to know why Chuck was messing with her.
"From the family's perspective, they're looking at it from the realm that he's been wronged, and that's understandable," Puetz said. "But in society, to have a civilized society, you can't have people's emotions create the kind of situation that happened here."
Chuck has a family too.
"He killed my brother," said Karol Carter, Chuck's sister. "My brother wasn't perfect, but who is?"
• • •
Shawn's family paid lawyers $70,000 for his defense. The lawyers tried to discern some truth from all the inconsistencies in the statements. They tried to show that Shawn was not a bad person. They even presented proof that Chuck had stalked another woman in the way he stalked Shawn's family. He'd been charged twice with aggravated stalking and gone to prison for it.
Shawn pleaded guilty to manslaughter in exchange for a 10-year prison sentence. He said he took the plea because his attorneys told him that a jury trial could go either way. He was afraid he would get life in prison.
"Did I think it was a case of self-defense? At the end of the day, yes," said Shawn's lawyer, Donny Kilfin. "But any time you're looking at a dead body in the street, you've got an uphill battle."
• • •
One day a few weeks ago, Anthony and his mother drove the five hours to visit Shawn in prison in the Panhandle.
Shawn's marriage has dissolved. He sees his 2-year-old son on a spit of grass and sand in the prison courtyard. He's despondent.
Anthony told his brother he had written a letter to the governor. Maybe the governor would see that Shawn acted in self-defense, maybe he would let him out.
Shawn tried to smile.
They began building a castle in the sand.
"I'm very proud of you," Shawn told Anthony. "Just keep telling the truth."
• • •
In his room back home, Anthony sits on his bed and plays Grand Theft Auto on his Xbox. In the game, his Russian character runs around a fictional Liberty City trying to ward off the mob, fighting and killing.
"This game, it's like real life," Anthony says, able to talk and play the game at the same time. "You have choices to make. There's right and wrong, just like real life."
As he talks, his character punches some guy on the street and runs away.
One day, he says, his character ran into a guy who hit him with a bat. Anthony's character had a knife and he stabbed the guy.
"It was weird," Anthony says, " 'cause that's what happened to my brother."
The cops came and ordered Anthony's character to the ground. But Anthony was able to press a button on his Xbox and escape.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Times reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8640.