Exoneration exposes flaws in District's juvenile justice system

Saturday, April 24, 2010

MAYOR ADRIAN M. Fenty (D) was grim as he faced reporters to admit the District had made a mistake in charging a 14-year-old boy in connection with the horrendous shootings that killed four people last month. It's frightening to think that an innocent person was wrongly charged. Still, the dramatic developments that unfolded this week are an important affirmation of a system that worked, and that should be cause for confidence.

Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and Attorney General Peter J. Nickles flanked the mayor Thursday as he detailed the circumstances that led to the arrest, and subsequent exoneration, of Malik Carter. He had faced 41 charges and was alleged to be the driver of a minivan that pulled up to a corner in Southeast on March 30 when three men opened fire into the crowd. At play were a confluence of factors -- a chaotic police chase that lasted some 15 minutes, a description of the driver that matched Malik and, most significantly, the boy raising his arms and surrendering to police in the mistaken belief he was being sought for absconding from a group home a week earlier. "In a perfect world, it wouldn't happen. I wish it didn't happen," said Mr. Nickles in an admirable display of the administration owning up to a mistake.

Authorities moved quickly to investigate information suggesting Malik was not involved, expediting fingerprint analysis. A day after receiving conclusive determination that the teen's fingerprints did not match any of those recovered from the van, the District dismissed all charges. It also took the unusual step of getting court permission to release the boy's name and publicly discuss the case. Information on juveniles is confidential, but the Washington Examiner had named Malik. Officials feared he would be a target of retribution if he were not publicly cleared of the charges and in a way that dispelled speculation that he was a police witness.

The importance of the government's ability to share this information with the public cannot be overstated, and we hope it serves as a guide for officials considering changes to the juvenile justice system. Malik had been under the supervision of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, and so his arrest sparked calls to overhaul how the District deals with its juvenile offenders. While that reaction was overblown, there is a need for a measured look at the system. While previous reforms should not be abandoned, there are legitimate concerns about how young offenders who may pose continuing threats to the community are treated. Strict confidentiality laws are a bar to an understanding of the issues and, as such, undermine public confidence in the department and the youth it serves.

The decision to drop the charges against Malik unsettled some family members of those killed or injured. That's understandable, given the grief they are enduring. Nonetheless, we would hope they find some solace in knowing those responsible for this heinous crime are being brought to justice. Indeed, overshadowed in Thursday's events was the news that police had arrested two more suspects and were searching for a third.

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