Two Northwest children who say they saw an 11-year-old boy strike a friend with a baseball bat said they believe he injured him inadvertently while playing. But, the two children said, police didn't interview them before charging the 11-year-old with assault.
The children and their mothers disputed key aspects of a report prepared by D.C. police and prosecutors on events leading to the arrest of the 11-year-old, who was sexually assaulted in a courthouse cell May 24.
One of the witnesses, a 17-year-old girl, said that her version of the event has been portrayed incorrectly by prosecutors who quote her in a report on the incident ordered by Mayor Marion Barry.
The girl's mother contends that on the night the incident occurred, she told a 4th District police officer who investigated the alleged assault that "all the kids were saying it was an accident."
The mothers of both witnesses said that the boy who was struck in the head by the bat and received stitches May 22 told them repeatedly that night that "it was an accident" but that his mother, who complained to police, told him "to shut up."
The names of the children are being withheld. Their mothers agreed to be interviewed on the condition that their names would not be used.
Barry said through his press secretary that "this is the first time these witnesses have come forward.
"But notwithstanding that, I don't think an 11-year-old should be put in a central cell block . . . . I'm outraged that an 11-year-old was treated that way. We're going to look into it and find a better way of treating young people like that, who are not going to go anywhere or run away."
Annette Samuels, the mayor's press secretary, said the mayor didn't indicate what, if anything, he would ask the police to do with the testimony of the two eyewitnesses.
Police Chief Maurice Turner and other police officials refused to comment. William Davis, deputy corporation counsel, said the report "stands as written." He said the prosecutor who interviewed the 17-year-old girl remembers her stating that it was not an accident.
The 11-year-old at the time of his arrest told police that he was horsing around testing the strength of his friend's plastic batting helmet when he "accidentally" hurt the other boy.
Police turned the boy over to deputy U.S. marshals at D.C. Superior Court, where he was placed in a cell with three older youths. Two youths, aged 14 and 17, attacked the boy and twice forced him to commit sodomy.
The boy, who had a history of depression prior to the incident, later was found to have contracted syphilis. He continues to receive psychiatric treatment at Children's Hospital.
After an account of the arrest and sexual assault appeared in The Washington Post, Mayor Barry ordered a report on the city's handling of the boy.
In the report released April 17, Deputy Police Chief James Shugart said that police involved in the case properly followed all procedures when they arrested the boy and took him to court and he praised Officer Bettie Eppes for her "sensitivity" in handling the 11-year-old's arrest.
The report quotes Eppes' supervisor, Sgt. Barry Thornes, as saying that "a felony was committed" and "serious bodily injury was sustained . . . . "
The report makes no mention of witnesses who believe the incident was merely a playground accident. Nor does it mention the mother of one witness who claims she told police prior to the arrest that the children "were just playing."
One witness, the 17-year-old girl, said she was on the way to the store to buy cigarettes for her mother when she approached the two boys, who were gathered with a small group of friends on the parking lot of a church.
She said the 11-year-old, whom she said she had known for several years, took a playful poke at her with a baseball bat. "I had told him he shouldn't swing it. But he said he was just playing and he wouldn't hit me," she said.
She said the 11-year-old then turned to his friend, who was wearing a plastic batting helmet.
"He was acting like he was going to hit him," the girl said. "He wasn't swinging like he was trying to kill him. He just tried to hit the helmet, I guess to see whether it worked."
The girl said the 11-year-old "tapped him on the helmet and it cracked." The boy who had been struck "sat down on the ground holding his head. When he took his helmet off, there was blood on his hand. We just told him to go home."
The girl said she and some other children followed the boy to his house where, she said, his uncle tried to stop the bleeding with a cloth. The uncle "asked him what had happened and he said, 'We were playing and the 11-year-old accidentally hit me,' " the girl said.
Another boy who said he was present gave a similar account.
This boy said that he, the 11-year-old and the injured youth had been playing baseball that day. According to him, the 11-year-old "said, 'Let's see how strong that helmet is' and [the other boy] said, 'Okay.' He took a little tap. I guess [the other boy] got scared and moved his head."
The injured boy was transported to Children's Hospital, where doctors closed a cut on the back of his head. Later that evening, he and his mother, Carolyn Reed, walked to the home of the 11-year-old and asked his family about payment for the hospital bill.
The 17-year-old girl who witnessed the incident said she encountered Reed afterward outside her apartment building and Reed "asked me, would I be a witness if she took him the 11-year-old to court."
According to several accounts, Reed then stopped at the girl's apartment and spoke with her mother and the mother of the other boy witness.
The mother of the 17-year-old said she told Reed that "I don't know what happened, but the children all say it was an accident. [The injured boy] was standing in back of her and he was saying it was just an accident. She said, 'Shut up [son]!' "
The woman said Reed gave her a piece of paper with a police officer's name and phone number on it and that she called the number while Reed waited in the apartment.
Reed declined to comment.
The officer "asked me if it would be okay if [my daughter] would go down and be a witness for Mrs. Reed's son," the woman said.
"She [the officer] asked me had I heard about it. I told her I didn't want [my daughter] to become involved because I thought the kids were playing. She started talking real rude. She said, 'You know, you have a child, too, and the same thing could happen to her.' I told her, kids will play and be friends the next day.
"She seemed upset because I didn't want my daughter to become involved," the woman said. "She said she would have to get a subpoena. I remember telling her, I don't think you can do that. She said, 'Yes, we can.' She said, 'We will be getting back in touch with you."
The woman said she next heard from police about a week later, when an officer took her daughter to court to be interviewed by prosecutors.
The report prepared by Shugart makes no mention of the conversation the woman said she had with police, or whether police knew of any witnesses at the time other than the 11-year-old and the injured boy.
Shugart's report described Reed's first contact with 4th District police as occurring the day after the incident, when Reed gave a statement to another officer, Charles C. Coleman. The report states that it was then that Reed's complaint was turned over to Eppes "for further investigation."
According to the report, "Eppes gathered enough information to establish probable cause for the offense of assault with a dangerous weapon," then called the 11-year-old's mother to tell her police were prepared to arrest him.
The boy's mother brought him to 4th District headquarters the next day and police took him into custody.
Prosecutors in the D.C. Corporation Counsel's office filed a petition in court charging him with assault a week later, shortly after interviewing the 17-year-old girl.
The girl said one prosecutor "asked me, 'Why did [the 11-year-old] hit [the other boy], was he mad at him?' I said no, he was just playing with the bat. He asked me, 'Do you know why he would do something like that?' I said, I guess they were just playing together because they had been playing before I got there."
Prosecutors in their report to the mayor quoted the girl as saying the incident "was not an accident" and that "she didn't know whether they were playing or what."
According to the report, the prosecutor who talked to the girl "was of the opinion that abundant evidence existed to prove that [the 11-year-old] intentionally assaulted" his friend.