Thirteen years ago, I was a Tampa reporter wandering courtrooms in search of news when I happened upon something shocking — even in a place where ordinary citizens view gruesome crime scene photos and adults are routinely seen weeping in public.
On a busy docket day, inmates in jail blues were seated in the jury box waiting to be called before the judge. All were men — burly, tattooed, bored men — and he was in their midst, a sweet-faced 12-year-old who had to sit up tall to see over the jury box.
He looked innocent. His crimes were not. He was accused in a string of car thefts and a couple of robberies, one in which he was the getaway driver. The victim at the ATM who found himself looking at a gun remembered someone in the car giggling.
His name was Walter Revear, though he was called JJ for the guy in Good Times, and he made great TV as his story played out. JJ was the baby face of a flawed juvenile justice system and the dilemma over little kids who commit big crimes.
Despite a guarantee of some ugly political fallout, Diana Allen, one of the toughest judges you'd ever want to meet, refused to put a child in adult prison. So we news types chronicled JJ, his acquittal on new charges of a car theft spree, his tripup smoking pot, his boot camp sentence. Two years after people rallied before Judge Allen and the cameras to vow community support, the courtroom crowd had thinned. JJ's voice got deeper. He got taller and less remarkable next to other inmates.
A nice family connected to Without Walls church took him into its nice home in the suburbs and really tried to make a go of it. When I visited them for a story, JJ looked as if he had suddenly found himself on the moon. He was doing well in school, as he had in boot camp — structure seemed to suit him — but the streets were always there.
When you hand out blame, it's fair to note JJ started out bouncing from home to home, in foster care after allegations of abuse, to grandparents in public housing. Sometimes his mother was not around. His father was in prison. These details are not an excuse as much as an explanation of where and what he came from.
After a 17-year-old JJ pocketed a gun that belonged to a friend of the family that was taking care of him, supporters were back in court to rally for him. Circuit Judge Jack Espinosa Jr., who called it one of his hardest decisions as a judge, put JJ in prison.
And can you really fault either judge — Judge Allen, who refused to throw away a child, or Judge Espinosa, who ruled on the side of public safety once a gun came into play?
So JJ is dubious news, again. He is 26 now, with five years in prison on a cocaine charge under his belt and facing new accusations of burglarizing a home. It's a sad latest chapter, maybe one that doesn't surprise you.
Who failed JJ? His parents, the system, a community that vowed to see him through? Was he already lost by the time he sat next to seasoned criminals in adult court?
And at what point do the decisions of a child-turning-into-a-man become his own responsibility?
All I know is a kid sat in the jury box that day, born of bad breaks, on a bad path and teetering on the edge. In the end, no one could catch him, maybe not even himself.