The last suspect convicted in the 2009 videotaped beating death of a Chicago honors student was sentenced Monday to 32 years in prison, ending a tragic case that symbolized the brutality of youth violence and sparked outrage around the country.
Lapoleon Colbert, 20, was convicted of first-degree murder in June for participating in the mob attack on 16-year-old Derrion Albert. In addition to watching the beating, which was captured on a cellphone camera, a jury heard a recording of a police interrogation in which he admitted to kicking Albert in the head and stomping on him while he lay defenseless on the ground.
Before his sentencing, Colbert apologized to Albert's family and pleaded with the judge.
"This is my first offense, have mercy on me," Lapoleon said, standing to face Albert's family before sitting silently with his hands folded in front of him.
But Judge Nicholas Ford was not swayed. He previously had handed down prison sentences of 32 years to two other defendants convicted during separate trials and 26 years to a fourth who pleaded guilty. A fifth suspect tried as a juvenile was ordered to remain imprisoned until he turns 21.
"There is a growing tolerance of conduct that history would view as unconscionable," Ford said. People better "start understanding that there is a difference between right and wrong."
The September 2009 fight erupted near Fenger High School on the city's South Side where Albert and Colbert attended classes. In the video, Derrion's attackers are seen punching and kicking him, slamming him over the head with large boards and finally, stomping on his head.
The sight of Albert trying to defend himself against waves of attackers, staggering to his feet and then crashing to the street again as he was unable to cover his body from all the kicks and punches, prompted the Chicago police and school officials to promise dramatic improvements in security around schools. From Washington, President Barack Obama dispatched two top Cabinet officials to the city to discuss ways to quell the violence.
Albert's family reacts
Albert's family has reacted calmly to the verdicts. To them, the tragedy is about six young men thrown together on a sunny afternoon, just days into the beginning of the school year, and how all their lives were destroyed in a matter of minutes.
"The hard part is now six young guys, basically their lives are over — Derrion's unequivocally, and these (five) guys are all going away for a long time," said Norman Golliday, Derrion's grandfather. "Who knows what any of them could have been and what they could have accomplished."
Chicago officials said they implemented various programs to help students get safely past neighborhoods where just walking by posed a danger — as well as initiatives such as conflict resolution programs inside the schools.
Among the security measures was a pilot program installing cameras allowing Chicago police to monitor events around Fenger and two other schools. Officials recently said that the number of crimes, arrests and cases of misconduct dropped dramatically at Fenger as a result, and that they would spend $7 million to introduce the cameras at a dozen other troubled schools.
"Despite the tough economic times facing our district, we're taking additional steps to reduce crime and create school environments that are safe for students and staff," Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said in a statement when unveiling the program.
After the Albert killing, the city deployed more police officers to the area and created a database and intelligence hub to track daily incidents of violence around schools, officials said. Federal stimulus money was used to boost "safe passage" programs to help youths get safely to school, and a $500,000 emergency federal grant was spent on crisis intervention and other student programs.
One of the most violent districts in Chicago
In the police district that includes the scene of the beating, crime has dropped but it remains one of the most violent districts in the city, with 14 homicides in the first seven months of this year.
While the Fenger school environment has improved, many problems persist there, and other equally troubled schools have not gotten the same attention, community activists said.
"Kids in my community still have fear about attending Fenger," said Cheryl Johnson, president of People for Community Recovery, a nonprofit social justice group based in a public housing complex that buses many students to the school. "Fear of the fights, the threats of going to that school, they still don't think that the administrators are supportive."
Albert's family has attended court hearing after court hearing in the case to make sure the story of the 16-year-old's life doesn't get lost — even though that meant having to watch the videotape of the beating numerous times.
"I still feel sick he's not here. I'm never going to see him again. I can't talk to him. He couldn't graduate or go to prom. Everything has been taken away from me," Albert's mother, Anjanette Albert, said after Monday's sentencing.
Families of the young men now spending a good chunk of their lives behind bars said many of the same things about how their lives that will be put on hold for years.
"He wants to go to college, too," Leona Shannon, said of her cousin, Silvonus Shannon, who was sentenced to 32 years in June.