A judge dismissed the charges against five counselors in the death of an East Baltimore teen at a Carroll County school for juvenile offenders, saying yesterday that a failure to call for help does not constitute reckless endangerment.
Carroll County Circuit Judge Michael M. Galloway ruled that although counselors are accused of waiting 41 minutes to call 911, reckless endangerment charges should be dismissed because that law applies to acts, not failure to take action.
The ruling outraged the mother of 17-year-old Isaiah Simmons, who died at the privately run Bowling Brook Preparatory School, and led her to renew her call for federal charges.
"I have no faith in the Carroll County justice system," said Felicia Wilson, Simmons' mother. "I'm not going to stop fighting for justice for my son."
Prosecutors intend to appeal, said Allan Culver, a senior assistant state's attorney.
Wilson said she hoped that federal charges would be filed.
Richard J. Wolf, the spokesman for the FBI's Baltimore office, said federal authorities have been monitoring developments in the case.
A Bowling Brook official and several of the counselors' lawyers praised the decision.
Brian Hayden, an administrator and member of the nonprofit organization's board of directors, issued a written statement for the school that the ruling "affirms that these gentlemen had nothing but the utmost concern for the safety and welfare of Isaiah, and they reacted as quickly and effectively as possible in an effort to avoid this tragedy.
"Bowling Brook expected that our employees would be fully exonerated," Hayden wrote. "Unfortunately, we have arrived at this place because a promising young man has died before he could achieve the dreams we all had for him, but we are relieved that the tragedy has not been compounded further by subjecting our former staff members to criminal sanctions."
Simmons, the father of a young girl, died Jan. 23, 2007, after losing consciousness while Bowling Brook counselors pinned him face down to the ground, restraining him for about three hours. His death, which was ruled a homicide, helped spark reforms in Maryland's long-troubled juvenile justice system, including a ban on face-down restraints at state-run institutions. Bowling Brook closed in March.
Each of the counselors had been indicted on one count of reckless endangerment for waiting 41 minutes to call 911, even though the teen was unresponsive and in need of medical attention.
Lawyers for Dennis Harding, Brian Gerard Kanavy, Jason Willie Robinson, Mark Richard Sainato and Shadi Sabbagh argued that indicting someone based on the "omission of a duty" - or failing to act - does not fit the definition of reckless endangerment.
In an 11-page opinion issued yesterday, Galloway agreed, saying that "while the [reckless endangerment] statute covers a broad array of activities, it is clearly not meant to cover all activities."
The statute serves "to punish conduct that creates a substantial risk of serious injury or death," Galloway wrote, and has been "deliberately construed to punish affirmative actions rather than passive inactions."
To rule in favor of prosecutors, who contended that the counselors had a duty to call 911 in a timely manner, "would be condemning broad categories of inactions," Galloway wrote.
Danielle Carter, Simmons' sister, said it was "absolutely absurd" to rule that "these counselors essentially didn't have a duty to try to save this child's life" by calling for medical attention "in a timely manner."
Joshua R. Treem, Robinson's attorney, said his client was "thrilled" when told of the court's decision.
"He was the youngest of all the defendants and had just graduated [from] college," Treem said. "This was his first permanent job, and all of a sudden he is being held responsible for somebody else's death. That's quite a burden."
Jan Bledsoe, Harding's attorney, said her client was ecstatic. "He's had this hanging over his head for over a year now," she said.
Jason W. Shoemaker, the lawyer for Sabbagh, said his client's excitement was "somewhat tempered by the fact that there still is a tragedy in this case" - Simmons' death.
Galloway's ruling comes days after the reckless endangerment charge against Michael Paul Corradi, the sixth counselor indicted in the incident, was dropped.
Federal authorities began a civil rights investigation shortly after Simmons' death, which Wolf said remains open.
"The FBI office in Baltimore will be evaluating the judge's decision and then determining what its role will be in the future in reference to the case," Wolf said.
Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he was in a state of disbelief when he learned that the charges against the counselors had been dismissed.
"This state prosecutor dropped this ball from Day One," Cheatham said. "A youth lost his life due to homicide and he comes out with that kind of charge? A child now is dead and no one has either accepted responsibility or apologized, and no one is being held accountable."
Wilson and Carter said they would continue to fight for Simmons.
"Our faith is completely unshaken by this" development, Carter said. "We believe justice can and will prevail."