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A story for parents to ponder.

Some years ago, on the Tuesday before Easter, in a small Midwest town, a 13-year-old boy was murdered. On that day the victim, Jonathan Brooks (Due to parole deliberations, pseudonyms are being used), attended his junior high school's first baseball game. After the game, he failed to come home for supper. A patrolman found his body the next morning in a wooded strip of land that bordered the diamond. He had been battered about the head with a blunt object.

The home-team catcher testified that he saw Jonathan during the game sitting in the bleachers behind home plate. "Jonathan was making fun of the way I was throwing the ball," the catcher said. "He just kept kidding me. You know, it was all in fun."

More important, however, the catcher said that Jonathan was sitting 'with a man", "and you could tell they were having a serious conversation." He described the man as 5 feet 10 inches to 6 feet tall, 175 to 185 pounds, neat, with red curly hair and fleckles. Judging the man to be in his early 20s, the catcher thought he might be a teacher from the visiting team's school.

The man who sat with Jonathan Brooks at the game has never come forward. His identity remains a mystery today.

At 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, two days after the death, a detective went to the home of 20-year-old Sammy Rafter, a young man with a slight build and mental disabilities. The officer asked the parents for permission to take Sammy to headquarters and enlist his aid in solving the crime. The parents, puzzled by the request but seeing Sammy jump at the chance to help, let him go.

Just after midnight, the police charged Sammy with murder.

Later, Sammy told his parents how proud he was to have helped the officers solve the case. "He acted as if he had suddently been made a member of the department," his father said. Still later, at a bond hearing, the chief state's attorney said the evidence against Sammy was "overwhelming."

But during the trial, the state based its case on what Sammy had told officers that Thursday evening. Sammy had waived all rights to have an attorney present during the interrogation, and he felt he had no need to remain silent. An officer claimed he had typed Sammy's final description of the killing and that Sammy had signed it.

Defense attorneys argued that Sammy, who possesses an inordinate desire to please people who reprsent power and prestige, had been "led into saying what he said to the officers."

The defense showed that numerous lab routines failed to turn up even one item of physical evidence that connected Sammy to the crime -- not a single hair or fiber or footprint or fingerpoint or human cell. A parade of clinicians described the many disabilities of this 5-foot-7-inch, 140-pound man with a speech impediment, gangling walk and tousled blond hair. They addressed his short attention span, thinking disorders, fantasies of greatness and his significant impairments in learning and judgement and memory. One expert, describing his impaired central nervous system, claimed that Sammy lacked the strength to deliver the brutal blows the victim received. Repeatedly, the defense underscored the young man's unabashed eagerness to please the police -- to be accepted by them.

As arguments came to a close, both sides called for "justice." But one excruciating contradiction stood out: A brother, aunt and uncle swore that Sammy had been home puttering in his room when the crime was committed. On the other hand, three officers claimed that only the killer could have known what Sammy had told them on that fateful Thursday evening.

The jury deliberated for three days, then announced a deadlock. The judge refused to release the jurors. Two hours later, the jury had reached a verdic: guilty of second-degree manslaughter.

Rejoicing prosecutors told reporters "the systems works," but the defense lawyers insisted that the state had convicted the wrong man.

Today, Sammy lives in a Midwest state penitentiary where he needs round-the-clock protection from other prisoners. His parents, who once had been active, well-liked leaders in community affairs, now keep a low profile. They used up their life savings in the legal defense of their son. And since the order of things in our society shows little concern for "criminals' families," the Rafters must anguish alone behind closed doors. In their seclusion they probably fail to notice that other parents of sons with disabilities suffer the same lonely fate.

Today, most folks in that town have forgotten all the finer details of the case. Nobody debates Sammy's innonce or guilt in the town's barbeer shops anymore. Only broad-brush memories of the case remain Jonathan Brooks was murdered. The cops arrested Sammy Rafter. He received a trial. The jury found him guilty. The judge passed sentence. The cops must have been right.

Even so, I still give in to repeated urges to take out all my clipped-and-mounted newspapers articles on the case and read them one more time. Then, one more time, I wonder if the outcome of the case would have been different if the arresting officers had been trained to understand mental retardation, brain damage and similar disabilities.

I wonder if things would have been different if the defense's clinicians had tried harder to communicate to the jury in language they could easily understand.

I wonder if the Rafters would have headed off the investigation if they had understood earlier that the police, with no training in disabilities, might misunderstand Sammy and his responses and use them against him.

Finally, I wonder what a person like me, with no legal status, might have done differently to help Sammy and his parents. I even daydream about sitting in a bar when a man with curly red hair, freckles and a tongue loosened by five martinis suddenly spills his guts about what he did at suppertime on a Tuesday before Easter, some years ago.

Journalist Robert Perske and his wife, Martha, have been writing and drawing beautiful, encouraging words and pictures for parents, families and people with disabilities for over 20 years. Bob suddenly encountered the criminal justice system. His new book, Unequal Justice? (Abingdon Press), is available in bookstores or by calling 1-800-672=1789.
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Title Annotation:mentally retarded man is accused of murder without evidence
Author:Perske, Robert
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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