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Under 'Supervision,' but Free to Kill

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, August 29, 2009

"Let's do that nigger."

Moments later, 12 to 17 gunshots rang out, leaving Demetrius Matthews lying on the ground making gurgling noises near the corner of Second Street and Todd Place NE. It happened in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, May 17. Today, attention is focused on Arlington National Cemetery. But life and death behind D.C.'s official curtain go on. These stories, too, can't wait to be told.

A witness to the May shooting, referred to as W-3 in a sworn police criminal complaint that I obtained, observed two black men running down the street into a house on Todd Place. W-3 concluded that the two men, who had been arguing with Matthews, were trying to rob him.

A second witness, referred to as W-2, reportedly also heard gunshots and claimed to have observed two black men walking backward on Second Street onto Todd Place. W-2 was unsure whether both men were shooting at Matthews, but said sparks and fire were coming from one of the men's hands. W-2 said the men turned and ran west on the south side of Todd Place.

Another witness, referred to as W-1, admitted to having participated in a May 17 drug transaction with Matthews present. After the deal was completed, W-1 claims to have walked away, but that witness returned after hearing gunfire. W-1 discovered Matthews suffering from several gunshot wounds.

W-3 said the voice of the person quoted in the opening line of this column sounded like someone W-3 had known for more than three years and spoke with three to four times a week. W-3 claimed to have not seen the shooter's face.

Police officers went to the Todd Place address that the two men had been seen entering after the shooting, and they spoke with the alleged shooter's mother. She said that her son was home and that the whole family was asleep the night of Matthews's murder.

These partial witness accounts of the killing of Demetrius Matthews are contained in a sworn criminal complaint filed on July 31 by a D.C. detective to support the issuance of an arrest warrant for 18-year-old Cornell Scrivner.

A two-paragraph item in The Post on Aug. 3 reported that Scrivner and a 16-year-old suspect whose name was withheld were arrested on July 30 and charged with the murder of Matthews.

It also said that while executing the search warrants, police discovered firearms, and that 18-year-old Craig Peacock of Northeast, who is not a suspect in the homicide, faces weapons charges.

That is the extent of media coverage of the May 17 homicide. City taxpayers, and all who walk D.C. streets, however, should pay attention to what comes next.

When members of the Capital Area Regional Fugitive Task Force, the U.S. Marshals Service and D.C. police executed search and arrest warrants on Scrivner, he was under the supervision of the city's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS).

Police found Scrivner and Peacock living in an apartment on Webster Street NE that DYRS uses as an alternative to detention. The agency calls it an independent living program.

I was alerted to the D.C. government's connection with Scrivner by a DYRS employee. The city likes to keep such associations hushed up.

Scrivner's arrest isn't rare. Since 2007, 16 youths under DYRS supervision have been charged with homicide.

Notified that I might write about the homicide charge against another DYRS youth, Public Information Officer Reginald Sanders provided statistics that show a decline in the number and percentage of DYRS youth charged with such crimes. According to Sanders, six youths in the agency's custody were charged with homicide in 2007, eight in 2008 and two so far in 2009. The percentages, based on the total number of people under DYRS supervision, also have declined annually, according to the department.

One murder, in a civilized society, is one too many. Murder by a ward of the city is outrageous.

The Scrivner arrest points to a larger issue: The city's decision to depopulate and downsize its secure juvenile detention facilities, and the consequences of that decision for public safety.

No one disagrees with the closure of the Oak Hill Youth Center secure detention facility. The place was an abomination.

But replacing Oak Hill with the much smaller and laughably insecure $46 million New Beginnings campus is an idea it seems only the young inmates could have dreamed up.

Public safety in the nation's capital, say law enforcement and court officials, is being sacrificed on the altar of an ideological bias against detention. And they point to DYRS.

The Matthews homicide may be an example. So, too, the 16 DYRS youths charged with homicide. And that's not counting detained youths released into community programs who have become victims or perpetrators of violence.

The agency's grand experiment with young offenders and public safety warrants a full-scale investigation. Unfortunately, the mayor couldn't care less, and D.C. Council oversight of DYRS is sycophantic and worthless.

Remember that thought the next time you hear about a youth committed to DYRS supervision who is in the streets, armed and demanding, "Let's do that nigger."

kingc@washpost.com

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