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Judge gambles, gives teen killer a second chance

Judges and prosecutors across the country regularly confront tough call when juveniles commit violent offenses: How to reconcile demands of "adult time for adult crime" when staring down from the bench at a youngster.
Youth on Trial Judges Gamble
Judge Kenneth Biehn, shown, sentenced confessed killer Kareem Watts, then 14, to a juvenile rehabilitation program in 2001.Mike Groll / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The boy before Judge Kenneth Biehn was quiet and withdrawn, an asthmatic whose mother used and sold crack cocaine and whose father was doing time for robbery.

At just 14, Kareem Watts stood accused of his own, much more horrific crime: Stabbing to death a neighbor who disrespected his mother.

He had admitted to a psychologist, "I took the knife and stabbed her." So guilt was not in dispute.

The decision facing Judge Biehn was how this case would be handled.

He could allow this boy to be prosecuted and sentenced as an adult, likely meaning decades in prison — or he could transfer the case to the juvenile system, where the teen would be confined and receive treatment but only until his 21st birthday, when he'd be released onto the streets a free man.

It was a question, really, of second chances. Judge Biehn had to determine whether this kid deserved one.

"The wrong decision in this case could be a fatal one ...," the prosecutor had argued.

It was the kind of tough call that judges and prosecutors across the country regularly confront when juveniles commit violent offenses: How to reconcile demands of "adult time for adult crime" when staring down from the bench at a baby-faced youngster like Kareem.

State laws typically set out criteria to weigh, such as the child's mental capacity, criminal history, likelihood of benefiting from treatment. And another factor: how best to serve the public interest and protect the community.

In the end, though, judges must rely on their own experience and instincts to make these very difficult choices — decisions that can pay off, or one day come back to haunt them.

He allegedly stabbed woman 70 times
It happened on a Monday night, May 15, 2000. As laid out for Judge Biehn in testimony, police records and Kareem's own statements to mental health experts who examined him, Kareem had spent the afternoon hanging around his Morrisville, Pa., neighborhood, playing video games with friends and smoking pot and "wet," marijuana dipped in embalming fluid.

Around 9:30 p.m., he knocked on the door of neighbor Darlyne Jules' apartment to borrow her phone. He made a call, and Jules gave Kareem some money, telling the boy to have his mother buy her cigarettes. That's when the trouble began.

Kareem would later say he got angry because Jules owed his mother money and instead was shopping for smokes.

"I don't owe her (expletive)," he recalled the woman telling him.

They began to push and shove, and then Kareem saw a knife on a table.

From his bedroom upstairs, Jules' 7-year-old son, Allin, heard his mother screaming his name and pleading, "Get the cops!" When the boy ventured downstairs to check on her, he saw Kareem on top of his mother on the sofa, stabbing her over and over — some 70 times, police would say.

The terrified child went back upstairs until morning, when he found his mother dead under a pile of clothes. Later that day, Allin Jules picked Kareem out of a crowd, telling police: "That's the boy who killed my mom."

Teen at first denies killing
At first, Kareem claimed he'd been home all night. But authorities found his DNA under the victim's fingernails. Jules' DNA was on a knife recovered from Kareem's apartment.

Just 13 at the time, Kareem became the youngest person in Bucks County, Pa., to be charged with first-degree murder. Under Pennsylvania law, juvenile murder defendants are automatically processed in the adult court system — unless the defense seeks to transfer the case back to juvenile court.

Kareem's lawyer, Richard Fink, filed a motion for just such a transfer.

The prosecutor, Gary Gambardella, wasn't worried. "The heinous nature of the crime. The cover-up afterwards. The denial. They were all, to me, earmarks of someone who was acting as an adult," he said recently.

Fink, too, thought his motion was a long shot. As one friend said to him: "It's impossible, with that number of stab wounds, that anyone will ever have the courage to treat him as a juvenile."

A difficult decision
Judge Biehn had never been one to agonize over his decisions, and he'd made plenty in more than two decades on the bench of the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas. In addition to hearing adult criminal cases, he was one of two county judges who presided over juvenile court.

His approach was to fashion rulings that not only fit the crime, but the kid. That might mean a lengthy prison term for one defendant and probation for another — or, in the case of some teenagers who once trashed a house, sentencing them to build homes for Habitat for Humanity.

Only once in his career did a decision leave him thinking, "Was I right?"

A 17-year-old honor student had been accused by a 4-year-old of sexual assault. There was no physical evidence, only one child's word against another's, but the judge believed the defendant guilty. A year after Biehn sentenced him to a sexual offender program, the teen admitted his crime.

Although second-guessing wasn't Biehn's style, he never lost sight of the fact that his decisions had consequences. Some kids, he knew, could change in the juvenile system. Some, no matter what the system did, would remain a threat.

He wasn't sure which way Kareem Watts could go, when he entered his courtroom for the hearing on his transfer request early in 2001.

Testimony showed the boy had been born two months premature after his mother abused cocaine and alcohol during her pregnancy. She had a $6-an-hour, part-time job as an assembly line employee for Estee Lauder. Kareem worked as a paperboy to help pay the rent. Still, they sometimes slept in crack houses or in the back of a car.

Angry at his mother's drug use and his father's absence, Kareem began acting out. At 7 years old, according to one psychologist's evaluation, Kareem started hitting himself. He once tried to jump out a window. When he was 9, he took a drug that caused him to hallucinate for days. At 11, he started using marijuana, huffing air freshener from aerosol cans and smoking "wet."

And there were voices. Kareem told defense psychologist Robert Strochak that he had been hearing voices for as long as he could remember, and Strochak concluded that the voices "were very much in control of him" when Kareem attacked Jules.

"They told me to do it. They made me," Kareem said, according to Strochak's evaluation. "They pumped all this stuff in my head like, 'You're never going to be nothing' and 'Look at your mom' and 'Where's your dad?' I closed my eyes and it took over."

Nevertheless, Kareem had never before exhibited severely violent behavior. He'd been disciplined three years earlier for bringing an unloaded pellet gun onto a school bus, but that was the extent of his record.

Mulling the options
Biehn considered all of this, and the opinion of Strochak and a county psychologist, both of whom concluded that Kareem seemed treatable in the juvenile system.

Representatives from several adult and juvenile facilities testified about what type of confinement and services Kareem would receive in both systems. Each offered counseling, anger management, education.

The main difference was that in the adult system, the "treatment" component could end by age 18 and Kareem would be transferred to an adult prison to serve out his sentence. In the juvenile system, treatment could extend to age 21. But at that time, Kareem would be released, with no requirement to even report to a probation officer.

What could happen once Kareem turned 21? What if treatment didn't work? What if he were to kill again?

Prosecutor Gambardella hammered at those what-ifs, noting that Kareem "could be as bad as he is today or worse."

"The community is entitled to have a killer being supervised on parole, rather than a killer roaming unsupervised amongst us," he argued. "This is a risk we cannot take."

Biehn recognized that there were no guarantees. Kareem, he said during the hearing, is not "a finished product. No one would suggest that he is, and he may never be. ... No one knows."

By the last day of the proceeding, Biehn had put most of his findings in writing. When testimony was done, he took a 15-minute recess, then returned to the bench to read his decision into the record — not his usual practice, but the judge wanted the victim's family and the public to hear how and why he'd come to the conclusion he did.

He outlined the facts of the case and spoke of Kareem's troubled background. He noted the boy's young age, his mental health problems, and his lack of criminal history. He reviewed the psychologists' findings and other testimony.

He then remarked that, in his view, the juvenile system offered far more treatment options and a "realistic opportunity for rehabilitation." Seven years' confinement, combined with treatment, "will provide the best opportunity to make it less likely he will commit an offense when he is ultimately released," he concluded. "That is in the public interest."

The judge ordered the case transferred back to juvenile court.

Within minutes, after attorneys reached an agreement that Kareem would enter the equivalent of a guilty plea, the boy stood and admitted killing Jules.

'Yes, your honor'
Before sentencing, Biehn asked the victim's family if they wanted to say anything about how the crime had affected them. They declined, although Jean Lubin, the father of Jules' three children, testified earlier: "The kids, their life will never be the same." Allin, he said, frequently had nightmares and feared Kareem might retaliate against him.

Kareem offered no apology, although Strochak had testified that the boy expressed remorse.

Judge Biehn then pronounced punishment: Kareem would spend the next seven years in a juvenile program called Alternative Rehabilitation Communities. The judge then turned to the boy.

"Kareem, I expect you to do a good job at ARC. Look at me," Biehn instructed. "Do you understand that?"

"Yes, your honor."

"Do everything you can so when you grow up ... you will be a responsible person. You will do your best to do that?"

"Yes, your Honor."

The system would have seven years to see that he did.

Probation officer skeptical
Kareem started out in a secure facility enclosed with barbed-wire fence. He lived in a 6-by-9 room with a bed, a dresser, a small window covered with bars and a 400-pound metal door that never was shut.

The schedule was strict: Classroom instruction from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., then an hour and a half of group counseling that might focus on drug and alcohol abuse or learning how to control and express feelings or building empathy toward victims. After dinner, there was another group meeting, then one-on-one therapy. He received anger management and other training.

Free time meant 15 minutes of exercise daily and, come Sundays, visiting with family or watching approved movies.

At least once a month, Kareem met with juvenile probation officer Bill Batty, who was skeptical in the beginning that this boy could succeed. His defensiveness was palpable. He shut down too easily, especially when the conversation turned to his mother.

Every six to nine months, Kareem also had to go before Judge Biehn, who reviewed his progress and could adjust the boy's rehabilitation plan. After 3 1/2 years at the secure facility, Biehn OK'd Kareem's transition to one of ARC's group homes.

There, the teen lived in a house with about a dozen other young men. He eventually enrolled in community college, and joined the basketball team. He was allowed some weekend visits with family.

There were setbacks. Kareem dropped some college courses without telling anyone and was given permission to attend a school dance, but when his date backed out he went with friends instead, without first getting approval from Batty.

At review hearings, Biehn scolded Kareem. He wondered at times: "Is this kid really ready to go out on his own?"

Signs of change
But there were signs of change, too. Not long after he was sent to ARC, Kareem began writing letters to the judge. They were short, his grammar poor. As the years passed, the letters got longer, his words more articulate. Once, he described an essay he had written about the poet Maya Angelou.

Batty also saw a transformation. Kareem began to open up and understand that his new life had to be different. He couldn't go back to the old neighborhood, or watch out for his mother when he needed to watch out for himself.

"It was a long haul," says Batty. "But then, he started to have some acceptance. And when he made mistakes, he always bounced back.

"He was put in the best position to succeed that I could have ever believed he'd be in. That's for sure."

Not long before his 21st birthday this past June, Kareem returned to Biehn's courtroom. Batty read his final report, and the judge deemed the case closed. Then Biehn stepped down from the bench and gave Kareem a hug.

He was free — free to go, and as free of his past as a court and treatment could make him.

Today, Kareem works as a counselor assistant at ARC, helping troubled kids like himself. He was appointed by the governor's office to sit on a state juvenile justice and delinquency prevention committee.

He declined to be interviewed for this story; a psychologist at the facility explained that Kareem just wants to put the past behind him. But earlier this year, he told the Bucks County Courier Times: "I know I'm lucky, and I'm grateful. Not many people in my situation get a second chance."

Biehn retired not long after Kareem's case was closed, but he saw the young man again in November, when he visited ARC to accept an award for all his years of service. The judge and his wife had lunch with the once-scrawny boy who now stands tall and self-assured.

"He's got a beautiful smile," says Biehn.

'Kareem was fixed'
While some question second-chance gambles like Biehn's, Kareem's former lawyer, Fink, called the decision courageous, and correct. In adult prison, Kareem "would've been the youngest, smallest person on the cell block. He would've rotted away," Fink says. "But I want to tell you, Kareem was fixed. This boy really turned his life around."

Others, like Gambardella and Batty, know that only time can truly tell whether that's true.

Says the prosecutor: "Look, I'm wrong sometimes. This is one of the times I hope I am."

The victim's family was never pleased with Biehn's decision. Following sentencing that day in 2001, a cousin of Jules told a reporter through tears, "It's not fair." Those feelings linger. Lubin did not return phone messages, but a woman identifying herself as his sister said of Kareem's release: "That's a damn shame. I didn't know they was gonna let him out that soon. The system — that's the way it is, I guess."

Ron Sharp, a psychologist at ARC for 21 years, notes that three juveniles found guilty of homicide have successfully completed the program during his time there. Two of the three, including Kareem, work at ARC; the other helps out now and then.

"They're responsible, productive young men," he says, though he understands the inherent discomfort in allowing a killer to go free after only a handful of years.

"If it was my son who was murdered ... would I be able to accept that? I don't know," he says. "But you make decisions on an individual basis based on the knowledge you have at the time. Sometimes you're right. Sometimes you're wrong. It'd be nice if it was perfect."