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Judge gives Rock Hill teens in gang fight a last chance

In Family Court on Tuesday, nobody threatened a cop in a cell behind the courtroom like weeks before. Nobody flashed gang signs or claimed toughness of the street.

A pair of kids – one 14 and another who just turned 16, who just weeks ago were so tough they beat up two girls – were sentenced to probation and counseling and community service.

That includes watching adult court, where gang members leave for prisons every day for years at a time.

There were no more threats to “shoot up the block” or bragging about how much pot they would inhale, sex they would have, or claims to be in a gang called the “Folk Nation.”

The Folk Nation has an alumni association of vicious drug dealers and violent predators who recruit part of America’s vital and wonderful future – York County’s kids – into crime.

Folk Nation grads proudly serve in almost every jail in America.

No, Tuesday was just the words from each teen; “Yes, ma’am,” when Family Court Judge Georgia Anderson of Spartanburg, retired yet still working, said, plainly and firmly to one of the kids: “Go to school, behave yourself, and do your work.”

The sentencing was for two of the five teens who were arrested Jan. 30 after a pair of girls walking down a Rock Hill street were jumped and beaten by the two boys who admitted it – and allegedly by three others who remain accused but have cases pending.

Because of the ages of the children, The Herald is not publishing their names.

The cops were called that January evening on Crawford Road by a witness, a person struggling to make a living, who did not want violence on her street.

When officers found the teens in an abandoned house, they bragged how they were not afraid of jail or anything else. One of the officers who arrested them, field training officer Sam Buchanan, just last week was honored as the Rock Hill Police Department’s officer of the year.

The teenagers, who do not shave and cannot drive because they are too young, flashed gang symbols that cold night at Buchanan and another officer, called out gang sayings, and one even threatened to come back and “shoot up the block.”

The five created such a ruckus in the Rock Hill jail afterward that a squadron of officers was required to calm the place down.

Then on their way from a juvenile jail to court a week later, the boys boasted of all they would do with drugs and girls and the fellas upon release.

Another visiting judge with almost 30 years experience – promptly that early February day after the shock of what was said in his courtroom about violence and threats of violence – sent all back to jail instead of out to a party, pending trial.

One of the boys – the 14-year-old sentenced Tuesday – was in a cell that February morning after court when a police officer who had arrested him walked by and the teen then threatened to “smoke” the cop.

But Tuesday was 57 days of jail later.

The teens made no threats.

The two in court, who each had no prior record before the January fight, had pleaded guilty to assault by a mob and trespassing weeks ago. The S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice did an evaluation of both, when each was separated from the other kids involved, who were acting so tough when around other tough guys.

When apart, neither teen got in any trouble, according to DJJ and prosecutors. Each denied gang affiliation.

The lawyer for the 14-year-old – the child who threatened the officer and was by all accounts, the loudest mouth of all at the outset – said the kid was “mouthing off.”

The threats, the claims of gang ties, of shooting an officer, were “immaturity, not malice...” the lawyer stated. “He keeps saying he’s sorry, and he wants to go home.”

The lawyer for the other teen claimed the incident was a fight, then bad behavior in front of the police that included constitutionally protected free speech. It all was blown out of proportion by, among other things, media coverage, the lawyer said.

The only media coverage came from The Herald, which believed in January when the girls were hurt, and February when the threats were exposed in court – and still today – that when teens beat up girls on a Rock Hill street, it’s important.

When teens claim to be gang-bangers while taunting an entire shift of cops about how tough they are, then threaten to shoot up a block where kids get on and off school buses and ride bicycles, then gloat about how much sex and drugs they would do, then threaten a cop, it’s important.

Because, if they’re lucky, the teens might have a shot at a decent life outside of a prison.

And if we’re lucky, our community does not live in fear of gangs – real or those on the edge of gang affiliation.

Real people, workers and retirees, kids and moms and dads, live on Crawford Road where the fight happened. There are four churches and a city recreation center within a couple hundred yards of where this fight took place.

Dreams are dreamed, bills paid, graduations planned, babies bathed, in this neighborhood.

That’s why this case is important. The courts showed through this case how kids who act out are caught, then how kids are handled by the judicial system, with the hope that the kids never see another courtroom – ever.

Except maybe to get married, or go to work as a lawyer, or judge.

The prosecutor, deputy solicitor for juveniles Ouida Dest, told the court Tuesday this fight and the threats against police and the kids’ chance at redemption was a big deal.

She asked for a suspended sentence to age 21 and 60 days of house arrest, which would “hang over their heads” in case any more trouble happened.

Dest made it clear she wanted to never see these kids in court again, but if she did, the hammer would be swift and fall without pause.

Judge Anderson seemed to think the fight and threats were a big deal. Anderson agreed to suspended sentences – mess up again and it is juvenile jail until age 21 – and probation and curfew, along with drug and mental health testing. She denied the house arrest request of prosecutors.

Anderson ordered them to attend a class that works to keep teens out of gangs; and aside from that class, to have no contact with each other, the other defendants or the victims. She also ordered that of 30 hours of community service for both, each must watch 15 hours of General Sessions court – a fancy name for criminal court for adults.

Criminal court for adults in York County, almost every time, ends with somebody who has not finished middle or high school being sentenced to prison for a crime of violence or desperation.

That is not anybody’s opinion. Sure, some trials end with not guilty verdicts or dropped charges. Others have reduced sentences from plea bargains.

The rest, most, go to prison. That is what happens in adult criminal courts.

State prisons are filled with 24,000 or so people who were in criminal court before a judge ended it with a gavel, bailiffs really ended it with chains, and families punctuated it with cries from the benches of the courtroom.

Judge Anderson told the teens, point blank, that this was their chance at a life without more courts and cells. She admitted she is not a gang expert, but knows enough about gangs from more than 16 years of wearing a judge’s robe to know that gangs equal jail.

“If you get sucked into that, you are really headed down a bad road,” Anderson said to the older teen, who turned 16 while in jail. “Stand up for yourself. Do not get involved.”

The teens’ parents sat in the back row of the tiny courtroom and the mother thanked that judge.

The younger teen was asked by the judge if he had any tattoos. He said yes, on his arm.

“R.I.P. Dad,” the kid said.

The teen’s father had died just months before the fight, his lawyer said. The teen became quieter, insular, afterward, the lawyer said.

Judge Anderson then told the teen, after sentencing: “I hope this is your last time in court.”

That teen’s mother, in the front row of the tiny courtroom for the third time in three months, sitting next to his grandmother, said, “I know that’s right.”

Court was adjourned and these teens had another chance at freedom, at life outside of jail. Both left with mothers, instead of in the back seat of a police car.