Icy winds blasted a dozen women and teenaged girls standing outside the Harford County Circuit Courthouse in Bel Air Friday morning who wrestled with poster board signs as they called out to passing motorists, rewarded by the occasional honk of support.
The group consisted of friends and supporters of Robert Richardson III, 17, a Bel Air teenager charged as an adult with first-degree murder in the January 2011 shooting death of his father at their home. Since his arrest, Richardson has been held without bail for nearly 14 months at the Harford County Detention Center.
Friday’s demonstration came ahead of a motions hearing in Richardson’s case, and was the latest organized by a group which seeks to have his case—and Richardson himself—moved back into the juvenile criminal justice system.
At the hearing itself, the case appeared to take another turn when defense attorneys for Richardson intimated that two other juvenile witnesses may have “been involved” in the crime, but stopped short of describing either their role in the alleged killing, or their knowledge of it.
Despite the blustery, chilly weather, one of the group’s organizers, Eileen Siple, said she believed efforts like Friday’s demonstration have warmed public opinion toward Richardson’s circumstances and could boost efforts to rewrite Maryland law governing the handling of juvenile offenders.
“The winds are changing,” she said. “I think people are starting to understand that it’s not okay to treat children as adults.”
According to police, Richardson told investigators that he shot his father, Robert C. Richardson Jr., 58, at their Bel Air home on Jan. 9, 2012 before dumping the body in an Aberdeen pond and leading officers on a chase through residential portions of Bel Air. The chase ended when Richardson crashed the family truck in the parking lot of the Bel Air United Methodist Church and fled on foot to a nearby community, where he was taken into custody.
Under state law, a juvenile charged with first-degree murder must be tried as an adult and, while awaiting trial, cannot be detained in a juvenile facility. It is those requirements to which Siple’s group and others object, saying they deny Richardson and other juveniles charged as adults access to critical needs such as education and therapy which could help rehabilitate the offenders.
Among those who have been drawn to Richardson’s case are Kara Aanenson and Rashad Hawkins, members of the Just Kids Partnership, a Baltimore-based group which seeks reform in how juveniles are handled in the criminal justice system. The group has sponsored a bill currently before the Maryland General Assembly which would allow juveniles charged as adults to be detained in juvenile facilities while awaiting trial.
“A kid ends up in an adult facility solely based on their age and offense,” Aanenson said. “It doesn’t look at the whole child.”
A study conducted by Just Kids followed 135 cases in Baltimore City in which juveniles were charged as adults. The group found that 68 percent of the youths had their cases transferred back to the juvenile system or dismissed outright, and that 10 percent of the youths were ever sentenced to serve a prison sentence in an adult facility. But the study also found that a juvenile offender will wait almost five months for a hearing to determine whether their case will be sent back to the juvenile system.
Richardson’s case has likewise drawn out, with a trial date postponed from July to January, and again to May 14. The delay was due in part to a change in his defense team, as Baltimore lawyer Marc Snyder initially agreed in January to represent the youth pro bono, but turned the case over to the state public defender’s office late last year, saying his planned defense had become too expensive.
The change, according to Siple, was hard for Richardson.
“It was difficult for him to swallow, especially difficult to swallow the reasons behind it,” she said. “He has not been able to trust a lot of people in his life.”
Richardson is now represented by Stefanie McArdle and Kay Beehler of the Aggravated Homicide Division of the state public defender’s office, who in their defense have also sought to establish new precedents in the juvenile justice system.
“This case really illuminates the problem with the state of the law,” said Beehler.
McArdle and Beehler filed two motions on Friday which, along with another motion filed last week, seek court rulings which would override the state laws setting Richardson’s circumstances. Their motions ask the court to transfer Richardson to a juvenile facility; to declare the mandatory penalties for his first-degree murder and weapon charge unconstitutional; and to declare as unconstitutional the trying of 16-year-olds as adults in first-degree murder cases.
At the motions hearing before Judge Stephen M. Waldron, Richardson’s defense attempted to iron out several issues with prosecutors led by Assistant State’s Attorney Diane Tobin. In a motion, McArdle and Beehler sought certain notes and audio tapes from the initial investigation, materials Tobin said would be made available without issue.
But McArdle raised a new issue in the case, seeking the full juvenile and school-related offense records of two juvenile witnesses in the case, and claiming that the lead detective in the case threatened one of the youths following an altercation at their alternative-education school.
Tobin claimed that the state’s attorney’s office did not have the juvenile or school records, and Waldron directed Richardson’s lawyers to seek the materials from the Harford County Board of Education and the state Department of Juvenile Services.
Of the threat made by the detective, McArdle was cagey following the hearing, saying only that one of the youths was “beat up” at his school by a third party, possibly as a result of bringing an application for a search warrant of the juvenile’s home to school. McArdle said the detective made the threat to the other youth, but would not detail exactly what the threat was.
In court, McArdle also alluded to the two other juveniles having “been involved” in the crime, saying that they could have been charged along with Richardson, but were not. McArdle did not specify and would not later comment on whether their role was in the alleged murder itself, or in having had prior knowledge that it would occur and not acting on that information.
Questioned by McArdle, Tobin said the two witnesses had not been offered immunity for their cooperation.