Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Tampa courtrooms a backdrop to kid's descent into crime

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.

Tampa courtrooms a backdrop to kid's descent into crime 01/08/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 18, 2011 12:05pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Trump vowed to end DACA. Tampa Bay immigrants worry he soon will

    State Roundup

    Andrea Seabra imagined the worst if Donald Trump won: "I thought on the first day he would say, 'DACA is done' and send immigration officers to every house."

    Mariana Sanchez Ramirez, 23, poses for a photograph on the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida on Wednesday. Mariana, who was born in Torreon in the state of Coahuila, Mexico, traveled with her family to the United States on a tourist's visa in 2000. She was able to stay in the U.S. and attended college after President Barack Obama's action on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in June 2012. Mariana will graduate with a degree in political science from USF next month. (CHRIS URSO   |   Times)
  2. Want to audition for Howl-O-Scream? Here's how.


    How would you like a job that has you running all night, dodging punches and earning high marks from your boss if you make someone wet their pants?

    Lindsay Weppelman, a University of South Florida biomedical science student, plays a Zombie Bride in one of Busch Gardens' open-air scare zones at Howl-O-Scream 2016.  Photo courtesy of Busch Gardens.
  3. On the defensive: Heisman history not in Derwin James' favor


    The lowdown on Derwin James? "No offense to (Michigan's Jabrill) Peppers (a Heisman finalist last year)," ESPN analyst Rex Ryan says, "but he only wished he was the player this kid was." (Monica Herndon, Times)
  4. Trigaux: Closing Iron Yard coding school hits area tech hard but leaders talk of options


    The coming shutdown this fall of the Iron Yard software coding school in downtown St. Petersburg — announced this month as part of a national closing of all 15 Iron Yard locations — remains a shocking event to a Tampa Bay technology community that dreams big of becoming a major player in the Southeast if not …

    In better days last fall, friends and family of graduates at The Iron Yard, based in the Station House in downtown St. Petersburg, applaud during "Demo Day" when grads of the coding school show off their skills. Despite the local success and strong job placement by the coding school, The Iron Yard is closing all of its 15 locations across the country this summer. [LARA CERRI   |   Times]
  5. Kevin Kiermaier: Return to action Thursday 'didn't set the world on fire'

    The Heater

    Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier's return from the hip injury that sidelined him since June 8 could have gone better Thursday in Port Charlotte. He broke two bats and went hitless in two at bats while playing for the Class A Charlotte Stone Crabs.

    Kevin Kiermaier takes cuts in the cage during batting practice before the game between the Rays and Texas Rangers Saturday at Tropicana Field. [WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times]