Verdict in Baltimore squeegee shooting trial renews debate over teens charged as adults
If he had been charged only with the crime he was convicted of, the teenage squeegee worker found guilty of manslaughter for fatally shooting a bat-wielding man in Baltimore would have been tried in juvenile court.
“That’s kind of ironic,” one of the teen’s defense attorneys, Warren Brown, said Friday in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. “Now, people are saying he’s facing 30 years. ... This conviction alone, had he not been charged with murder, would have been juvenile jurisdiction.”
A jury found Brown’s client, a 16-year-old, guilty Thursday of voluntary manslaughter, possession of a firearm by a minor and use of a firearm in a crime of violence. Together, the maximum penalties for those crimes in adult court add up to 35 years in prison.
Brown’s client was 14 on July 7, 2022, when he shot and killed 48-year-old Timothy Reynolds at the busy intersection of East Conway and Light streets. The Sun is not naming the teen because he is a minor. In Maryland, a 14-year-old cannot be tried as an adult for manslaughter — only first-degree rape and first-degree murder, the latter of which the teen was charged with.
What Brown refers to as irony others call injustice, and the verdict in the teen’s highly publicized case has resurfaced demands for wholesale change to the way the state’s criminal legal system handles youths accused of crimes.
“Across the board when it comes to sending children to adult court, Maryland is one of the worst, most punitive and least in line with best practices and evidence in the country,” said Jenny Egan, chief attorney for the juvenile division at the Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore. “It’s not just that we charge young people in adult court but that we charge people as young as 14 automatically in adult court, no matter who that child is or the circumstances, or all the other things, there’s no discretion.”
Maryland’s juvenile justice system has plenty of detractors, but it differs from the adult system in several ways. Cases go to trial quicker — typically within six months of charging. Guilty findings don’t mar a child’s record when they become an adult. Sentences focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment, with programs tailored to individual youths. With no set sentences, the juvenile system’s jurisdiction ends when a person turns 21.
State law requires children as young as 14 to be automatically charged as adults if the crimes they’re accused of carry maximum penalties of life in prison. It also requires that cases of minors aged 16 and 17 begin in adult court if they are charged with handgun violations or any of the 33 offenses defined under the Maryland criminal code as a crime of violence, such as murder, rape, kidnapping and armed carjacking.
Youths charged as adults can move to transfer their cases to juvenile court, but they bear the burden to convince a judge that their case is better suited for juvenile court.
State Sen. Jill Carter, a Democrat who represents East Baltimore, said the teen’s case underscores the type of reform she and other lawmakers, policy experts and youth advocates have been trying to enact for years in attempts to tip the scales and require all cases involving minors to begin in juvenile court.
“The practical reality,” she said, is that in the year since the incident occurred, if the case had been transferred to the juvenile court system, the defendant would have been “uplifting himself and improving his life” and could “fully flesh out what occurred and his reaction to what occurred.”
Those who oppose juvenile court for serious offenses, Carter said, overlook “the fact that, whatever the sentence he receives,” he will be coming back into society “and it makes more sense bringing him back with all the tools” to be a better person.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger declined to comment specifically on the teen squeegee worker’s case, but said the existing system of starting cases for serious charges in adult court works well. He noted some of those cases are transferred to juvenile court.
“On a Friday night at 11 o’clock and you have a dead person on the ground, and a juvenile holding a gun, you need to err on the side of public safety,” Shellenberger said. “More likely than not the individual is not going to be released, and therefore there will be time built in to figure out if this person is a danger to the rest of the public.”
He cited the case of a 15-year-old Cockeysville teen who pleaded guilty in 2008 to killing his parents and brothers.
“They tried to waive the ... case down to juvenile court. It seems to me that the system works,” he said of the case, which stayed in adult court. “You have a study done on the juvenile’s life, including psychiatric evaluations, it all goes into a waiver summary and then you have two sides who get to argue in front of a neutral judge as to where the best place for this juvenile to be tried is.”
James Bentley, spokesman for Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates, defended the office’s decision to charge the teen as an adult. He cited evidence of premeditation presented in court: That the teen grabbed a bag with a firearm in it moment before the altercation and pulled a mask over his face before he shot Reynolds five times.
“This is precisely the type of case that would be tried in adult court,” Bentley said.
Under Bates’ predecessor, Marilyn Mosby, prosecutors offered the teen a plea deal to second-degree murder and at first agreed to resolve the case in juvenile court. Reynolds’ family pushed back, saying they were blindsided by the plea offer and arguing the prosecution should happen in adult court. As a result, Mosby’s prosecutors took a neutral position on the teen’s transfer to juvenile court, rather than supporting the move as they previously had.
At trial, the teen’s attorneys argued he wasn’t the shooter and alternatively that, whoever it was, opened fire in defense of themselves or other squeegee workers from an unprovoked attack from a grown man wielding a metal bat.
The jury’s verdict means it believed he shot Reynolds. But, in acquitting him of murder, they found that he acted in partial defense of himself or others.
Attorneys for the teen did not present evidence at trial about how children’s brains react to threats differently than adults.
Adults and children are “very different” in terms of brain structure and function, said Dr. Joette James, a clinical neuropsychologist in Washington, D.C.
James, who often testifies in court as an expert, likened an adolescent’s brain to having a fully functioning car they can steer and drive, but with brakes that don’t work well. Due to their brain development, she said, adolescents are more prone to impulsive behavior, more emotionally unregulated and are more likely to be led by emotions or others.
“This is what we call the ‘perfect storm,’ where they’re not quite at a place where that structure is developed in that frontal cortex, to slow them down,” James said. “They’re super responsive to emotion and reward, in the face of risk. And so, they tend to make more risky decisions.”
The teen’s case reignited a longstanding debate in Baltimore over what the city should do about the people, mostly Black teenagers, who weave through traffic at busy intersections to wash windshields for quick cash.
Brown believes pressures outside of court factored into decisions that saw his client tried as an adult. As such, he’s not convinced reform would have changed anything about the teen’s case.
“He’s one of those kids, squeegee kids, who are not thought highly of — in fact, they’re viewed as a nuisance,” Brown said. “He shoots this guy, and Baltimore is mired in shootings and homicides and there is this effort, from the top down, to stem the bleeding. And if that means sacrificing this little boy, then that’s what they’re going to do. He represents everything that’s wrong with the city.”
About 81% of minors charged as adults are Black, according to a fact sheet prepared by the Maryland Youth Justice Coalition. What’s more, that organization found that more than 87% of cases where youths were charged as adults between 2017 and 2019 did not end in adult criminal sentences.
“That’s what people have been pushing for for years, is to fix this backward system, because it puts the child and the family and everyone through this enormously costly, public and just very, very tumultuous process only to have to start over again... It’s not good for the child. It’s not good for rehabilitation, and it’s not good for complaining witnesses,” said Egan, the public defender. “It doesn’t allow them the finality they deserve either.”
Research has found that youths convicted as adults reoffend at a much higher rate than those who are tried and adjudicated in juvenile court, according to Egan.
It’s still possible the teen’s case goes back to juvenile court.
Brown, his attorney, said the defense plans to argue for the teen’s case to be transferred to juvenile court for sentencing. The defendant is eligible to make that case because the jury acquitted him of first-degree murder. His defense attorneys will have to convince the trial judge that that the juvenile system is best equipped to help their client return to society.
The law says Circuit Judge Jennifer B. Schiffer, who presided over the trial, must consider the youth’s age, their mental and physical condition, their willingness to receive treatment, the nature of the crimes and public safety — the same conditions Circuit Judge Charles H. Dorsey III evaluated when he decided in November to keep the case in adult court.
Brown said in the fall and maintains now that his client would be better served by the juvenile system. An independent state evaluator found the teen was amenable to juvenile services, and the teen has no criminal record, Brown said. The defense plans to appeal Dorsey’s decision, but they can’t file an appeal on that legal issue until the teen is sentenced.
Advocates say that’s another place the law falls short for minors charged with crimes.
“They’ve already gone to prison,” Egan said. “The damage has already been done, and they can’t go back and do those teenage years.”