An Alabama youth who waged a two-year fight to avoid extradition from the District was returned yesterday morning to his home state, where he faces a possible trial on arson and murder charges that could result in a death sentence.
Shortly after 10 a.m., Gadsden, Ala., police officers picked up the youth at the District of Columbia Receiving Home for Children in Northeast Washington. In the afternoon, they flew with him to Birmingham, where he is being held at a juvenile detention center near his home.
The youth has been identified only as O.M. because his case was in juvenile court. Now 18, he had been in the District since May 1988, when he left his hometown of Gadsden after being questioned by police in connection with an apartment firebombing that killed an 18-month-old boy.
The Etowah County District Attorney's Office charged him with arson and murder, and issued a warrant for his arrest. District police officers then arrested him at the home of relatives in December 1988.
The issue of whether he should be sent home to possibly face the death penalty if convicted went all the way to the Supreme Court, which rejected O.M.'s appeal.
According to Gerald I. Fisher, the D.C. lawyer who represented O.M. in his efforts to avoid what is technically called "rendition" to Alabama, the youth now faces two questions. First, will Etowah County officials indeed prosecute him? Second, if they do prosecute him, will they try him as a juvenile or an adult?
Under Alabama law, a juvenile tried as an adult and convicted of arson or murder can be sentenced to death.
Etowah County District Attorney James E. Hedgspeth declined yesterday to say how he will treat the case.
O.M.'s return to Alabama marks the culmination of two years of legal and political efforts that stirred public passions over racism and capital punishment.
His family has argued that O.M., who is black, could not receive a fair trial in the all-white county where he is charged.
His grandmother, Alyce Guice Thomas, who saw O.M. yesterday, said, "His chances of a fair trial are zero as far as I'm concerned. This is a city reeking with corruption. You can't take corruption and get something good out of it."
Thomas has said in court proceedings that her civil rights efforts in the community have singled her out for persecution. O.M.'s father died in police custody, and O.M. alleged in affidavits that a Gadsden police officer threatened him with death during questioning after the firebombing.
D.C. officials cooperated with Alabama's efforts to return the youth, but O.M.'s lawyers tried to use the District's official policy against the death penalty to avoid rendition.
The D.C. Superior Court rejected those arguments, as did the D.C. Court of Appeals. In April, his lawyers exhausted their appeals when the Supreme Court refused, without issuing an opinion, to hear the case.
The D.C. Council also passed emergency legislation last July designed to block rendition, but the law's 90-day limit expired before it could be put into effect.
Thomas said District residents supported her grandson because "most people who live in D.C. migrated from the South, and they know how conditions for black people are in the Deep South."