D.C. Youth Agency Grilled by Hill Panel

D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey confers with a staff member before the start of a U.S. House committee hearing concerning the juvenile justice system in the District.
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey confers with a staff member before the start of a U.S. House committee hearing concerning the juvenile justice system in the District. (Photos By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 29, 2005

The chairman of a House committee is demanding to know how a 16-year-old Southeast Washington youth became a suspect in four killings that occurred while he was under the supervision of the D.C. juvenile justice agency.

But Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) is unlikely to learn what happened in the case of Marcel Merritt, a teenager described by police as a neighborhood terror. Merritt was found fatally shot Oct. 17 on Suitland Parkway, and the agency isn't talking.

At a hearing yesterday before the House Committee on Government Reform, the District's top youth services official declined to provide details of his agency's interactions with Merritt, citing confidentiality laws. Davis convened the hearing to explore juvenile justice issues, including the handling of Merritt's case.

Merritt came to the attention of authorities when D.C. police arrested him in February 2004 and he had a submachine gun and a pistol. After his death last week, police closed the investigations of two homicides that they said Merritt committed last year. One of the killings occurred two months after the teenager was caught with the firearms, police said.

The youth was arrested one other time last year on handgun charges. For a time, he was housed at the city's Oak Hill juvenile detention facility in Laurel; then he was released to the custody of a relative. In August, the city lost track of him, and an order was issued for his arrest. Police suspect Merritt in two homicides and the critical wounding of a 38-year-old woman since September. Those cases remain under investigation.

Merritt's body and that of a friend, Kevin A. Jackson, 17, were discovered on the parkway near Alabama Avenue. Both had been shot numerous times. Police do not suspect Jackson was involved in the four killings.

During yesterday's hearing, Davis said Merritt's case "raises serious concerns regarding the District of Columbia juvenile justice system." He said he has written to the District government seeking answers.

Davis sent the letter after a Washington Post article described Merritt's history in the juvenile justice system and the crimes he is believed to have committed. Officials with the youth services agency declined to discuss specifics of Merritt's case with The Post. The article quoted the head of a mentoring group who said he had urged that Merritt remain at Oak Hill.

Davis's letter gave city officials until Nov. 7 to answer his questions, including, "Why was Marcel Merritt released from D.C.'s Oak Hill juvenile detention center despite a long criminal record and against the recommendations of the group mentoring him?"

D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) also has asked city youth services officials for records concerning Merritt.

In his testimony yesterday, Vincent Schiraldi, director of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services since January, said the agency needs further reform. He called Merritt's case "tragic," but he declined to speak further. "Confidentiality restrictions preclude me from discussing specific facts of this youth's case," he said.

Schiraldi is not expected to provide details of the case in a letter to Davis or to turn over records to Fenty, said his spokeswoman, LaShon Seastrunk.

"It's the law," Seastrunk said, adding that the records remain private even though Merritt is dead. "Unfortunately, there is no way to get around it."

Also considered at the hearing was a bill introduced by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) that would lead to the relocation of Oak Hill from about 800 acres near Fort Meade.

Cardin's bill would transfer the land to the National Park Service, the Army and Anne Arundel County. The federal government would build a D.C. juvenile center at a location to be determined. Anne Arundel would reimburse the federal government for the cost of the new center from cash generated by the development of its portion of the land.

Cardin said he introduced the bill because Oak Hill is in disrepair and because the center should be closer to the youths' families in the city. A spokeswoman for Cardin said he does not expect action to be taken on the bill until an inventory of federal property is completed. That should be finished sometime next year, she said.

The D.C. government is pursuing plans to build a smaller youth center at the site. Schiraldi said the center will need about 25 acres.


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