Former Macon Mayor Jack Ellis criticized the Bibb County District Attorney’s Office on Thursday for the prosecution of four 9- and 10-year-old elementary school students accused of gang activity.
Ellis, who announced last week that he will run for mayor next year, said the district attorney’s office “trumped up” gang charges against the four boys, who allegedly assaulted a fifth boy in a Hartley Elementary School classroom last March when the teacher momentarily stepped out of the classroom.
Three of the boys’ cases have been resolved through plea arrangements or adjudication. The fourth is pleading not guilty and his case will be heard in Juvenile Court next Wednesday afternoon, officials said.
The school’s principal initially suspended the four boys for three days each, but the incident was turned over to the school system’s campus police. The case was then sent to the district attorney’s office.
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“This is wrong and we’re not going to take it,” Ellis said at a news conference in front of the county courthouse Thursday afternoon. “Rather than go with the recommendation of a principal with 30 years of experience, the DA saw fit to say it was gang activity, to call it gang violence.”
But assistant district attorney Mike Smith, who is prosecuting the case, said the definition of “gang activity” is broad. It can refer to organized gang affiliations such as the Crips or the Bloods, who have gang colors, hand gestures, tattoos or other identifying symbols, or it could refer to groups of three or more youths attacking someone.
Smith, who said he couldn’t get into many specifics in the pending case, said this specific incident was a combination of the two. While the four youths weren’t members of a gang such as the Crips, they formed a clique and bullied the victim previously, he said.
“I’ve spoken to the victim and his mother, and this is an ongoing thing,” Smith said.
Ellis said he hasn’t spoken about the case with the district attorney’s office. He said he got his information from attorney Roy Miller, who is representing the boy whose case will be heard Wednesday.
Ellis appeared at the news conference with the boy’s mother, Jeanette McCrory, and other friends and family. McCrory said her son, who has a different last name, hasn’t had a record of trouble previously, but he did get suspended twice that week. The Telegraph’s editorial policy is to not report the names of minors accused of crimes.
“He never touched the other boy,” she said. “He’s always been a child who has tried to help others. ... I hate for him to be involved in a trial for something he didn’t even do.”
Ellis said that because this was a simple school fight and no weapons such as guns or knives were used, the students should have only been punished by the school principal.
“This was school rough-housing,” he said. “They had started boxing each other. I don’t condone fighting, no question about it, but there are ways to deal with it rather than this trumped up charge.”
Before the news conference, Ellis said “this is worse than the Jena 6 — this is the Macon 4 and these are 9-year-olds,” referring to the 2006 incident at a Louisiana high school that led to racial tension and fights between black and white teenagers.
Ellis said he is concerned the charges could follow the four students around for their teenage years and into adulthood.
But Smith said that juvenile records are very difficult to acquire, and the punitive action taken in juvenile court is done as much to prevent recidivism as it is to punish a child.
Smith said the punishment that’s often meted out includes counseling for the child, community service and other activities designed to curb violent tendencies.
“Is this an age that’s too young? I say it’s as young as it takes,” said Smith, who said age shouldn’t be a barrier when it comes to justice.
He said many district attorneys in Georgia take a similar hard line in youth cases.
“I’ve had 5-year-olds who have brought weapons to school and were going to use them,” Smith said. “I’ve had 8-year-old burglars, 8-year-old car thieves. Where do you draw the line?”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.