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When you are a reporter writing courthouse stories of murder, rape and other assorted ugliness, you don't find many that have hope in them. But the one about J.J. did.

He raised eyebrows even in a place spilling over with kids in baggy jail clothes chained hand and foot. At only 12 and in the fifth grade, he was old enough to help pull an armed robbery. He sat peering over the edge of the jury box next to the burly men in adult court, a striking photo that would follow him even when his jail mug showed a grown man with a beard.

And so Walter Revear III, J.J. to family and friends, became the rope in the tug-of-war between people sure he was salvageable and people who thought he wasn't worth it.

I remember standing by a lawyer who saw him in that jury box, how she sort of softened and said he was just "a little peanut." I remember another lawyer opining that J.J. would not see 30.

These were interesting times for juvenile crime. You heard a lot about smug and savvy young thugs who knew they faced no serious punishment for boosting a car stereo, a whole car, even a whole bunch of cars. Police showed rap sheets that went on page after page for a kid still years from voting age.

But Diana Allen was a judge unafraid of police, prosecutors, political backlash or people who would call her office afterward to complain. She saw some kind of hope in J.J. and refused to send him to adult prison, where he would surely have been lost. Or, at least, lost sooner.

Everyone knew J.J. by then. One 17-year-old who used a .357 to rob people made news by bragging nothing would happen to him because nothing happened to J.J. He got 10 years.

We saw J.J.'s repeat appearances before judges and we saw well-meaning people try to set him right. I watched him working at a computer at the Without Walls Church school that took him in and pushed him until he made honor roll. I visited the pretty beige home in the suburbs where a nice family had taken him in. It seemed really hopeful. Even a prosecutor who had worked to convict J.J. told me, "That just might work."

J.J. was polite and soft-spoken and always, always wary, a hard kid to interview. He seemed so out of place, so uncomfortable in his skin in that nice, safe home, a square peg in a round hole.

Always, he drifted back to what he had known. He picked up a gun and got arrested again. He grew up and he went to prison.

The question everyone kept asking was: What do you do with a kid like J.J.? Watching him stumble again and again, I thought of other questions. Can a kid be lost to being saved? When is it too late?

Maybe the answer is in growing up with your parents missing in action, on drugs or in prison, in a grandmother who could not keep him from temptation. Maybe there is a clue in the mental health problems that landed J.J. in the state mental hospital last year.

He was 28, free only a month. In the early morning hours Wednesday, he was shot dead outside a Tampa bar. This will only fuel those who thought him not worth saving in the first place. But he was.

People I talked to after we learned the murder victim of the day was J.J. were surprised, but not shocked. We just hoped for a better ending, even if we knew this one was always there.