The trial of a group of suspects charged in a fatal attack on a bicyclist began Monday without a key figure at the defense table: the youngest suspect, who allegedly stabbed the victim to death.
A judge sent his case to juvenile court two months ago. He was 15 at the time of the attack; if found guilty in the juvenile system, he would be released before his 21st birthday.
His juvenile co-defendants, meanwhile, are being tried as adults — and face charges that could bring multiple life sentences. State law does not allow for Daquan Middleton, now 17, and Antoine Eldridge, now 18, to have their cases sent to juvenile court because they were 16 or older at the time of the crime.
Middleton and Eldridge elected bench trials Monday in front of Circuit Judge Stephen J. Sfekas.
Police have said Middleton was himself stabbed during the attack and was the one who took the victim's bicycle.
Robert Ponsi, 29, was riding his bike through Waverly on his way home from a restaurant job in Harbor East on Jan. 10 when he was knocked to the ground, police said. Witnesses told police Ponsi was kicked and punched as attackers yelled, "Get his wallet!" He was stabbed 11 times.
Police said the youngest suspect told police that he was the one who brought the knife and stabbed Ponsi. The Baltimore Sun does not identify juvenile suspects.
Judge Robert B. Kershaw, the judge in charge of Baltimore's juvenile court, said during a Sept. 1 hearing that he decided "by the narrowest of margins" to send the case to juvenile court, where the focus is on treatment and rehabilitation over punishment.
The youth was a City College student who had excelled on debate teams since elementary school. He attended the private Loyola Blakefield school, wrote a winning proposal for a small grant to fund a program for youths in his area, and acted on a local television show.
Ronald Means, a child forensic psychiatrist, testified at the September hearing that the youth grew up without a father. For all his achievements celebrated by adults, Means said, the youth felt isolated from his peers. They picked on him. Twice, he was beaten up as cameras rolled, and the footage was put online and widely circulated.
He felt "inept at being a teenage boy," Means said.
Means said the boy latched on to a group of troubled youths in the area who said they would stand up for him, and they retaliated against those who had beaten him up.
The youth's defense attorney, Charles N. Curlett Jr., told Kershaw that the law required him to focus on "the actor, not the actions he may have committed."
Curlett said the youth would be subjected to a "litany of horrors" in the adult prison system.
"Our system can ensure this boy's life is not wasted," he said.
But then-Assistant State's Attorney Patrick Moran argued that the youth needed to be punished. He noted Means' testimony that the boy had no mental disorders or substance abuse problems. In juvenile detention awaiting trial, he had received stellar reviews from the staff.
"What behavior are we trying to modify?" Moran asked Kershaw. "This young man doesn't have behavioral issues."
Moran has since left the state's attorney's office after being charged with distributing child pornography.
Ponsi's mother and one of his sisters also spoke at the hearing, saying the youth was making excuses for a terrible choice he had made.
"We just sat here and listened to every cop-out on the face of the earth," said Dawn Ponsi, the victim's mother, who said her own family had overcome addiction problems. "You do not deserve rehabilitation."
One of Ponsi's sisters said she was worried the youth could be released within eight months.
"It's bigger than this case," she said. "This happens all the time, and to give someone essentially a slap on the wrist and let them out in this wild city? It's not fair. It's not right."
Kershaw said the praise from adults and taunting from peers was a "disconnect of catastrophic proportions."
He said treatment in the juvenile system was not a slap on the wrist, but a "safe institutional placement" that was likely to continue until his 21st birthday.
The youth was 15 years and 6 months old at the time of the crime. He is now 16.
In Maryland, the cutoff for those charged with murder to be eligible to be waived to juvenile court is 16.
Middleton was 16 years and 11 months old at the time; Eldridge was 17 years and 7 months old.
They are charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, armed robbery, robbery, theft between $1,000 and $10,000, and carrying a deadly weapon with intent to injure.
Juvenile proceedings in Maryland are sealed. Curlett declined Monday to comment on the status of the 16-year-old's case.