Kenny Bryant got his start as a career criminal before he left elementary school. Arrested for his first felony at age 9, he picked up his first auto theft charge at 10 and was busted for carrying a gun at 13. The next year, he tried to burn down the courthouse in his Kentucky hometown.
Then, at 17, after moving to Northern Virginia, Bryant shot two men along Richmond Highway in Mount Vernon, one fatally. He was ordered to stand trial as an adult, convicted of murder, and imprisoned for life. Maybe.
Bryant, now 40, has filed a motion to overturn his conviction, based on a ruling by the state appeals court last year that both parents of a juvenile suspect must be notified before the child can be tried. Bryant's mother filed an affidavit in Fairfax County Circuit Court stating that she never received formal notice of her son's hearings.
Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said Bryant's appeal represents the worst-case scenario resulting from the case of Jeramie Baker, a Stafford County teenager who was convicted as an adult of malicious wounding in 1996.
Baker's lawyers appealed, citing a Virginia law requiring that both parents be notified before any juvenile court proceeding, including those in which a juvenile court is deciding whether a young offender should be tried as an adult. The appeals court ordered a new trial for Baker, and the state Supreme Court upheld the ruling in June.
"It's so hard for me to believe," Horan said, "that 23 years later, this case may be coming back."
After the ruling in Baker v. Commonwealth, prosecutors predicted a wealth of old juvenile cases would rise from the grave, swamping commonwealth's attorneys with the need to retry the cases.
But a year after the ruling, relatively few appeals have been filed based on claims that parents weren't notified, authorities around Virginia say. Horan said his office has had only a handful. Arlington County Commonwealth's Attorney Richard E. Trodden and Virginia Beach Commonwealth's Attorney Robert J. Humphreys each said they had only had two old cases resurrected, and officials in the state attorney general's and public safety offices said the number was relatively small.
"The fear that people had, that juvenile offenders would be turned loose in great volume, has proven to be untrue," said David Botkins, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office.
This summer, the state Supreme Court granted a stay of execution to Douglas C. Thomas, a Middlesex County man who was 17 when he was convicted of murder, so it could reexamine the case in light of the Baker ruling. Earlier this month, however, the court ruled that Thomas's de facto parents had been notified, and reaffirmed his conviction.
Still, Horan believes that appeals such as Bryant's may trickle in for years, largely because the state Supreme Court offered no clear interpretation of how the Baker ruling can be applied to old cases. For example, the court didn't say whether convicts who never raised the issue of parental notification in earlier appeals can do so years later. Questions about notification were part of Baker's appeals all along.
Virginia Beach prosecutor Humphreys said he believes the Supreme Court is considering several other cases that involve parental notification and "now wants to take a comprehensive look at this, and fashion an opinion that lets everybody know what's going on."
Bryant is serving his life sentence at the Powhatan Correctional Center west of Richmond. His attorneys, Mykl D. Eagan and Brent A. Johnson of Richmond, began representing Bryant in his parole hearings, then filed their "Baker" motion in September. They declined to comment.
Bryant had been in Fairfax County only a few months, leaving behind a string of 30 convictions in Owensboro, Ky., when he fatally shot James D. Cox, manager of the 7-Eleven at 7330 Richmond Hwy. He then crossed the street and shot gas station manager Mohammed Younes, who survived. Less than two weeks after he was ordered to stand trial as an adult, he sodomized an 18-year-old man in the Fairfax County jail. Bryant was convicted of that crime, and the county paid the victim $350,000 in damages.
Bryant testified at his trial in December 1976 that he had been an alcoholic since age 8, and that he shot Cox because he was drunk and angry and didn't realize what he was doing. He was convicted of first-degree murder, malicious wounding and two counts of robbery, and became eligible for parole in 1996. His original attorney, Paul A. Scott, said a new trial for Bryant would be "substantially a waste of time because they had such a solid case against him."