In post-Parkland Florida, young people are still dying from gun violence

Even with dozens of deaths, Florida doesn't stand out nationally when it comes to youth gun killings, ranking No. 21 in the rate of such deaths by state.
Published Feb. 14, 2019

Tanya Robinson sits in the "victim's row" at the front of the courtroom, a few feet from the man charged with killing her son, struggling between anger and tears.

It's like this every time she's here, a fight to stay calm in the face of unspeakable calamity, though it has been almost a year since her son, 14-year-old Christian Robinson, was shot in the head in the backseat of a friend's car, less than a mile from home.

The shooting, by terrible coincidence, happened just a few hours after the slaughter of 14 children and three adults in a Parkland school about 200 miles away, one of at least 80 gun deaths — including the Parkland students — of youths 18 and under in Florida in the year since the massacre.

His murder didn't make many headlines. You probably didn't hear a word about it, especially after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

But his mother wants people to know his name.

"I'm going to court every time because I promised Christian I would be his voice," Robinson, 35, said. "I'm just going to let everyone know how he was. I want everybody to know about him because he was amazing."

In the dark months since she lost her son, Robinson has learned what it's like to be part of the ritualistic march toward the only form of justice that the courts can mete out. She's seen how court cases can drag on, each delay a fresh agony. She's lost control in the courtroom, screaming "murderer" at Steven Marin, the man charged with using a 9mm handgun to open fire on a car of teenagers in what prosecutors call a deadly case of road rage. One desperate night, Robinson even paced out the distance between her house and that of the accused killer at 3 a.m., unable to sleep as she wondered how mortal danger could have lurked just 67 steps from home.

She has sworn to attend every hearing, even the insignificant ones. She shares every new court date on Facebook as an "event," asking people to attend with her — and they do — because she has learned one thing for sure.

"I have to be there to make sure Christian gets justice," she said, reaching up to touch a silver locket she wears around her neck.

The locket is shaped like angel wings and contains some of Christian's ashes. She had the lockets made for herself and Christian's three siblings so they could keep him near their hearts. She has not taken hers off since the day she got it.

The night of his death is a blur, with chunks of time missing. She remembers coming home from her younger son's basketball game to find the house dark and quiet when Christian should have been home.

Before the game, she had begrudgingly given him permission to go with a family friend to pick up his best friend, Adrian, a short way down the street. Christian was grounded — she doesn't remember what the minor offense was — but he'd begged her to go out, so she had relented.

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She hadn't yet gotten the lights on when her youngest son texted her: Call Adrian's mom. Something is wrong.

Before she could react, there was a knock at the door. Police officers. Christian had been shot.

At the hospital, she remembered only Christian in surgery and how swollen he looked afterward, his chances of survival slipping.

On Feb. 17, Christian died. Robinson donated his organs, helping five people, from a 20-month-old boy with kidney disease to a 70-year-old woman with a failed lung. It's what Christian would have wanted, she said. If he couldn't live, he would want others to.

But sitting on the wooden courtroom bench in late January, with Marin a few feet away in an orange-striped jail uniform and a trial date finally set for July 22, Robinson knew the bleak truth. No matter how many hearings she attends, no matter how vigilant she is, the courts can't give her anything resembling real justice because Christian will never come home.

Even with dozens of deaths, Florida doesn't stand out nationally when it comes to youth gun killings, ranking No. 21 in the rate of such deaths by state, according to a Miami Herald analysis of data compiled by nonprofit news organization The Trace, which focuses on gun violence. The Trace used information from the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research group that tracks shootings through news and police reports, to identify the deaths, so the tally may not include incidents not publicized by police or reported by media organizations.

The deaths happened in big cities like Miami and Jacksonville, and in small cities, like Bowling Green in Central Florida, with a population of just 3,000. A handful were considered accidental — four — and 11 were related to domestic violence. Many seemed to spring from minor incidents or daily aggravations, in the instances where investigators felt able to pinpoint a cause.

The number of kids killed in the past year hasn't changed much compared to the year before Parkland, in which at least 81 died. But it's difficult to know in any year whether a change in gun deaths stems from fewer shootings or timely medical treatment that saved gunshot victims, said Harvard gun violence researcher David Hemenway.

But there is other knowledge to be gleaned from examining the cases behind the numbers, starting with the toll on families.

It's been 13 years since Tanya Fincher lost her son Desmond in a shooting outside a food store in Miami's Liberty City five days after Christmas. No one has ever been charged in the murder.

When the Parkland shooting happened, she thought of her son. Desmond — known as "Smiley" to his friends — was just 17 when he was gunned down, a kid who loved to play football and always answered with a "yes, ma'am, no sir." He never got to meet his unborn son, now 12, who is named after him.

Fincher has only recently begun attending meetings of a group called Florida Parents of Murdered Kids, where she finds some small measure of solace trying to help other mothers and fathers who have lost children. They're the only people she says can really know what she went through — and what she still goes through.

"It's like someone got your heart and just snatched it right out. No warning — boom," Fincher, 53, said. "The pain doesn't end."

Tangela Sears, who runs the support and advocacy group that Fincher attends, said the pain is the same for parents, whether they lost their child last year or a decade ago.

"Parkland really has nothing to do with the issues that we deal with. I have a parent that lost a kid 23 years ago but I also have a parent who lost a kid three months ago," said Sears, whose adult son, David, was shot to death in 2015. "They go through the same thing."

Fincher says she knows who killed her boy. The man is in prison on other charges now, she said, but that hasn't assuaged her grief — and the sense that justice remains undone for her son. She hasn't been to his grave, hasn't picked up his death certificate, and it took her 10 years to visit the place he was shot.

Her son's case, with no one prosecuted for the death, is far from unusual. The Washington Post reported that in Miami, no arrest is made in about 60 percent of murders. In Tampa, no one is arrested in just under half of all cases, the report said.

But Fincher also felt sidelined in the investigation. She never got the name of the detective and feels that her son's murder didn't receive the attention it deserved.

"They didn't tell me jack," she said. "He was just another young black boy on the floor."

Luther Campbell, a Miami hip-hop legend turned community activist, said he has seen the way neighborhoods can be terrorized by gun violence — in part because so many murders are unsolved. He and others, he said, have spent years telling police and prosecutors about the fear that pervades some communities, but the conversations never seem to result in practical help, like more street lighting and security cameras in the most dangerous spots.

"The first thing they say is, 'Hey, look, we know who the killer is and nobody wants to say anything,' " he said. "And when you talk to the families and people in the community, the first thing they say is, 'Look, yeah, we know who the killer is but the killer is not going to jail, and people who are saying something? The killer goes and shoots up their house.' So it's a very bad situation."

And while the gun debate after Parkland focused in large part on restricting AR-15 rifles — the kind used in the school shooting — people in crime-ridden areas want to keep their guns, he said, to protect themselves. That's a disconnect he's not sure most civic leaders understand.

"People have to protect themselves when you don't incarcerate the killer," said Campbell, who has been pushing for more law enforcement, especially from federal authorities who can employ racketeering laws as one part of the answer to the violence.

In some of the rougher neighborhoods in Miami, he added, people don't even feel safe bringing in groceries or going to the park with their children. "They basically don't want tougher gun laws — which may seem crazy to people living in a nice area where they can walk their dog without being afraid."

But getting a gun for protection isn't the answer for everyone struck by violence. Ciara Smith, a 27-year-old Jacksonville mother, recently considered getting a gun for the first time after her 7-year-old son, Tashawn Gallon, was killed in crossfire as he played outside the family home where she grew up. The shooting (which resulted in no criminal charges and a finding of "justifiable") took place in a ZIP Code — 32209 — known for violence, as the Florida Times-Union reported in 2016. The ZIP Code also ranked among the top nationwide for the rate of youth gunfire deaths, according to a Herald analysis.

Smith said she had never seen the type of violence there that took her son's life. The ZIP Code may be dangerous, but that street wasn't, she said.

"Nothing really bad ever happened there," she said, adding that she eventually decided not to buy a gun.

And yet that 32209 ZIP Code remains dangerous. A hospital researcher from UF Health Jacksonville, who studied trauma center patients, also concluded that gun violence in Jacksonville was concentrated in that zone. The area includes some of the poorest parts of the city. Over a 20-year period, trauma patients with gunshot wounds from that ZIP Code were "dramatically overrepresented" in the recent study, said Dr. Marie Crandall, associate chair for research in the department of surgery and a professor of surgery.

She and other researchers looked at 898 patients 19 and younger who came to the Level 1 trauma center, which serves Northeast Florida. The researchers did the study without funding. Federal dollars for gun violence research are scarce.

Crandall sees the flow of young patients as a symptom of lack of investment in the community. She said treating gunshot victims without researching the causes of it amounts to nothing less than malpractice.

"It is placing a Band-Aid on the situation without preventing it from happening again," Crandall said.

Before Christian's death, gun violence wasn't something Tanya Robinson thought about much. But in Miami-Dade County, a youth pastor named Free Balbona worried about it constantly.

Balbona, 39, and his wife, a teacher, had seen gun violence on their own street in their Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami. Houses within blocks of his were drug holes, he said, and his house and car had been sprayed by bullets. One even went through a door, piercing a trophy in his 12-year-old daughter's room.

He was already living in fear when he got the call Dec. 28. His 18-year-old son, Isaiah, had been shot in Opa-locka in what Balbona says was an ambush. As soon as the car — which also contained Isaiah's 17-year-old sister and her friend — rounded a corner, gunmen opened fire, getting off at least 30 rounds. The very thing he had tried so hard to prevent had happened.

He said that "shots started ringing like hell itself. I don't know at what point my son got shot in the head, but I can tell you that the way the shots were placed in that car, the detectives said themselves, it's a miracle anyone survived."

Afterward, Balbona made a public plea for peace — not retaliation — on CBS4, saying, "An eye for an eye is not the answer."

He also did something that would be unthinkable for most parents. Knowing that words alone won't stop the violence, he asked a friend to start recording video of him at his son's hospital bedside to show the harsh reality — in graphic close-ups — of a shooting.

"This is gun violence," he says to the camera, grief making his voice raw as he stands over his son's body. Isaiah's head is wrapped in white gauze.

Balbona said he plans to post the video online. He wants to shock people into awareness, make them understand the pain he felt looking down at his son's ashen face and what so many other parents have felt when gun violence has robbed them of a child.

"If people don't see the visual, it's just another story. My son fades away, it's just another dead person. Then also ... what everybody wants to do is retaliate. I'm making this video so they can say, 'Look this is gun violence,' and this day was my son. It hits home. But one day it may be your brother, it may be your son, it may be someone else. It's a cycle that continues."

Miami-Dade detectives said they have leads in the case, but no one's been arrested yet.

Balbona isn't taking any chances when it comes to protecting his family. Since his son's death, he has kept an assault-style rifle on a table by the front door. Opposite the table, his son's navy blue and white Nike sneakers sit in a cabinet that's been made into a shrine, the shoes surrounded by flickering candles, pictures of a smiling teenage Isaiah and a cross. His house is still pockmarked with bullet holes, as is the gray Dodge Charger parked out front.

He's making plans to move from the neighborhood he calls a "war zone," with its paltry street lighting and negligible police presence. He's sickened by those who seek justice at the end of a gun barrel, who live by a philosophy of, " 'If there's a problem, I'm going to go to this side of town and kill you.' There's no middle ground."

Isaiah is the latest victim of gun violence, but Balbona knows there will be more — more young lives ending with a bullet, more families mourning their children and more criminals, uncaught, boasting on social media about the murders.

"These animals are still out (there) claiming death. This is what they do. And they're still out (there) like it's a badge of honor. ... It's like it's funny to them. Load up the clips. Hit this car up and kill. It's like a video game. Turn on the TV, turn on the console. It was nothing."

This story is part of the Since Parkland series in partnership with The Trace. Miami Herald staff writer Chuck Rabin contributed to this report.