An inmate stands in the south end hallway of the Central Detention Facility in the District. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

SECOND-CHANCE CITY | This is part of a continuing series that will examine issues related to repeat violent offenders in the District of Columbia. Part I | Part II | Part IV | Part V | Part VI

Hundreds of criminals sentenced by D.C. judges under an obscure local law crafted to give second chances to young adult offenders have gone on to rob, rape or kill residents of the nation’s capital.

The original intent of the law was to rehabilitate inexperienced criminals under the age of 22. The District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act allows for shorter sentences for some crimes and an opportunity for offenders to emerge with no criminal record. But a Washington Post investigation has found a pattern of violent offenders returning rapidly to the streets and committing more crimes. Hundreds have been sentenced under the act multiple times.

In dozens of cases, D.C. judges were able to hand down Youth Act sentences shorter than those called for under mandatory minimum laws designed to deter armed robberies and other violent crimes. The criminals have often repaid that leniency by escalating their crimes of violence upon release.

In 2013, four masked men entered the home of a family in Northeast Washington, held them at gunpoint and ransacked the house. One of the invaders, Shareem Hall, was sentenced under the Youth Act. He was released on probation in 2015.

Almost exactly a year later, Hall and a co-conspirator shot a 22-year-old transgender woman, Deeniquia Dodds, during a robbery in the District, according to charging documents. It is unclear who pulled the trigger. Police said the pair were targeting transgender females.

Dodds died nine days later.

“You’re telling me you can come back out on the streets and rob again, hold people hostage again, kill again — because of the Youth Act?” said Joeann Lewis, Dodds’s aunt.


Joeann Lewis, with the ashes of her niece, Deeniquia Dodds, a transgender woman killed in Northeast Washington in July, allegedly by Shareem Hall and a co-conspirator. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Hall is one of at least 121 defendants sentenced under the Youth Act who have gone on to be charged with murder in the District since 2010, according to The Post’s analysis of available sentencing data and court records. Four of the slayings, including the killing of Dodds, occurred while the defendants could still have been incarcerated for previous crimes under mandatory minimum sentencing, and 30 of the killings took place while the suspects were on probation.

Youth Act offenders accounted for 1 in 5 suspects arrested on homicide charges in the District since 2010, a period that has seen a recent surge in homicides and growing public concern about repeat violent offenders.

The cycle of violence has been largely shrouded from public view or oversight. D.C. judges do not track the use of the law, which provides a collection of benefits to violent felons that experts say does not exist anywhere else in the country.

The District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act offers lenient sentences to offenders under 22 years old. But The Post found that at least 120 people sentenced under the act since 2010 have gone on to be charged with murder. (Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

After a young adult is convicted of a crime, the Youth Act allows judges to decide whether the offender can benefit from rehabilitation and should receive special treatment. The law gives felons a chance to have their convictions expunged from the public record if they serve out their sentences or complete their probation. Because of the way the law was written, Youth Act offenders also can avoid mandatory prison time for certain violent gun crimes. The Post also found that judges applying the Youth Act generally give lighter sentences across the board.

The law was enacted in 1985 during the mayoral administration of Marion Barry (D), at a time when jails were being filled with young men charged with drug crimes, in an attempt to protect African American youths from the stigma of lengthy prison sentences.

“We have a value in this city that youthful offenders should be rehabilitated,” said D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser. “But I don’t think anybody expects leniency for violent criminals.”

The judges declined The Post’s requests for interviews and also declined to comment about specific cases. In a written statement, the judges said they weigh many factors in sentencing, including the ages of offenders and the effect of their crimes on the victims.


“In considering whether to sentence a young person under the Youth Act, generally judges are aware that a felony conviction can create lifelong obstacles to becoming a good and productive citizen,” wrote Lynn Leibovitz and Milton Lee, who are, respectively, the presiding judge and deputy presiding judge of the criminal division of the D.C. Superior Court.

“It is important to note that a sentence under the Youth Act gives the defendant this opportunity, not a guarantee, to get the benefit of a set aside of the conviction — it is still up to the defendant to perform during his or her sentence and to apply to the court or the Parole Commission to receive the benefit of the Youth Act. If the offender does not perform well, the conviction remains on his or her record.”

The D.C. Public Defender Service defended the use of the law.

“The Youth Act is a valuable sentencing option because as the Supreme Court has recognized and science has shown, youthful offenders, compared to older adults, can have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform,” said PDS general counsel Laura Hankins in a written statement.

She said her office knows of “hundreds” of young offenders who have successfully completed their sentences.

From January 2010 to April 2016, 3,188 sentences for felony crimes were handed down under the Youth Act, 73 percent of them in cases involving violent crimes or weapons offenses, The Post found.


To assess the effects of the Youth Act, The Post obtained data from the D.C. Sentencing Commission showing the date and outcome of every felony case since 2010. The data did not include names of offenders or judges, or details of the crimes. To link individuals to crimes, The Post wrote software to extract those details for every criminal case, including those that mentioned the Youth Act, in publicly available electronic court dockets.

This search captured Youth Act cases in which people had not received the benefit of expungement either because they were still serving their sentences or had violated the terms of probation or release from prison. The overall success rate of the program is unclear because the identities of offenders disappear from public view if they complete the terms of their sentences.

Among The Post’s findings:

• At least 136 Youth Act sentences were given to young offenders convicted of armed robbery since 2010.

• At least 750 offenders have been sentenced multiple times under the Youth Act in the past decade. More than 200 of those were sentenced for multiple violent or weapons offenses.

• Judges have given roughly 2,300 Youth Act sentences to young offenders for weapons offenses or crimes of violence since 2010. On average, the offenders have received about 60 percent of the prison time of non-Youth Act offenders who had comparable criminal histories and had committed similar crimes.


When asked about The Post’s findings, Leibovitz and Lee responded that the court “does not comment on data based on percentages, since sentencing is an individualized event based on many considerations.”

In a survey of states across the country, The Post was unable to find any law with provisions equivalent to those in the District’s Youth Act.

An expert in national expungement laws told The Post that leniency programs typically focus on first-time or juvenile offenders and apply expungement to misdemeanors or other nonviolent crimes.

“It is opposite of the trend nationally,” said Anne Teigen, a program principal at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Colorado, referring to the District’s expungement of records of repeat and violent felonies.

In the District, Youth Act sentences have been handed down in cases involving victims who are vulnerable in ways that ordinarily lead to tougher sentences: an elderly woman held up at gunpoint; a brother and sister — 12 and 13 years old — kidnapped outside their middle school and held hostage by someone armed with a box cutter; a pizza deliveryman hit on the head with a brick during a robbery; the driver of an ice cream truck whose vehicle was taken during an armed carjacking.

In the summer of 2015, a D.C. jury found 20-year-old twins Christopher and Christina Lucas guilty of committing a hate crime against a gay man in Columbia Heights in 2013. The twins stomped on the man, one called him a “f----t motherf---er,” and his face was slashed with a sharp object. Prosecutors said the case very easily “could have been a homicide.” They asked for 15 years.

D.C. Superior Court Judge Yvonne Williams (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

D.C. Superior Court Judge Yvonne Williams departed from voluntary sentencing guidelines, which recommended four to 15 years, and gave the twins a year in jail under the Youth Act.

At a hearing two weeks later, amid community outrage, Williams justified her decision by invoking the Eminem song, “Lose Yourself,” saying that the Youth Act was designed to give “one shot” for the twins to reform.

“It’s the most inspirational song, even though he’s applying it to, like, rap music,” the judge said in court. “It’s like, you only get one shot. And his one shot is that he had to — you know, it’s in the movie ‘8 Mile’ . . . the rap has to be so good. You only get one shot. ”

The twins were rearrested this fall, Christopher for allegedly making a verbal threat and Christina for allegedly attempting to block officers from arresting her brother. Judge Williams declined to comment for this story.

D.C. politicians wrote the Youth Act, but the judges, prosecutors and public defenders in the District who carry out the law are funded by Congress, because of the unique split in federal and local authority in the District. The judges are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate for 15-year terms and are not accountable to D.C. voters.

Briefed on The Post’s findings, Mayor Bowser (D) said she thinks judges, prosecutors and public defenders have come to “misapply” the law at the expense of public safety.

“Prosecutions, plea deals, sentences rendered, sentences served, and then what happens when folks are being supervised . . . the community should know that,” she said. “We can’t have a safe city if there are no quick and certain punishments for crimes.”

‘I saw their scared faces’

Last year, homicides in the District jumped 54 percent from the previous year to 162, the highest total since 2008. A survey found that for the first time in almost a decade, crime had become the top concern of D.C. residents.

Killings in 2015 charged to prior Youth Act recipients reached 22, double the previous year’s total.

Tavon Pinkney was charged with one of those 22 homicides. In 2014, the 18-year-old was arrested on a robbery charge after he snatched a man’s Apple iPad. It was the first adult offense for Pinkney.

“I wasn’t really worried,” Pinkney said in a recent prison interview with The Post. “I knew they were going to let me off easy.”

Pinkney said that he had committed at least a dozen robberies by the time he was arrested.

“I saw their scared faces,” he told The Post of his victims. “But I never thought about their feelings. I was just being selfish.”

Pinkney pleaded guilty to attempted robbery, and Judge Anita Josey-Herring suspended his sentence and gave him probation under the Youth Act.

“I will give him a Youth Act because I do, and it may be aspirational, believe that people should have an opportunity to change their lives,” she said.

But Pinkney didn’t take that opportunity.

“I went back to doing the same thing,” he said. “Nothing changed. . . . They just gave me the Youth Act and let me go right back out there. They ain’t really care.”


Rico Myers (Metropolitan Police Department)

Matthew Shlonsky (Metropolitan Police Department)

In February 2015, five months into his probation, Pinkney shot Rico Myers four times during a daytime PCP deal. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and is serving a 17-year sentence in federal prison in Pennsylvania.

“I know I could have been better. It’s just what I chose,” said Pinkney, who is now 20. “It’s crazy, because my brain is not even fully developed yet.”

Judge Josey-Herring declined to comment for this story.

In at least 30 homicide cases, defendants had received Youth Act sentences more than once before — turning a second chance into a third or even fourth opportunity to return to the community.

Christopher Proctor, Andre Dudley and a third person are charged in the August 2015 killing of Matthew Shlonsky, a 23-year-old American University graduate who was caught in crossfire near the Shaw Metro Station. Proctor had received two sentences under the Youth Act, including one for attempted theft in 2010. Dudley had received three sentences under the Youth Act, including one in 2014 for escaping from a youth detention facility. Both have pleaded not guilty in the shooting of Shlonsky.

Jermaine Hailes (Prince George’s County Police)

“The program isn’t working, because people are dying,” said Brendan Walsh, a fraternity brother of Shlonsky’s. “The government has some culpability in that.”

On New Year’s Day in 2007, a 64-year-old woman, Willa Kynard, was walking with her cane when a young man jumped out of a white van, pointed a gun at her and demanded her purse.

“Oh, Jesus, don’t let him shoot me,” Kynard thought, according to court documents.

The van eventually crashed after a police chase, and Jermaine Hailes, then 16, who was found hiding in a dumpster, was linked to two other robberies that night. He was charged as an adult and pleaded guilty to one count of armed robbery.

Judge Harold Cushenberry cited the Youth Act in sentencing Hailes to three years in prison, two years less than the mandatory minimum. Cushenberry declined to comment for this story.

After his release from prison, Hailes shot 27-year-old Melvin Pate in the face in 2010 during a robbery in Maryland.

Pate, who was paralyzed, was able to identify Hailes as his attacker by blinking in response to being shown Hailes’s picture in a photo lineup. Pate died two years after the shooting, and Hailes was convicted this year of first-degree murder. A Prince George’s County judge sentenced him to 70 years in prison.


Melvin Pate in an image from an investigative video in which he identified his attacker by blinking at his picture in a photo lineup. (Family photo)
‘Left of liberalism’

The District’s Youth Act was modeled after a failed federal law that was drafted in the 1940s for a different kind of criminal in a much different time.

Members of Congress sought a way to curb juvenile delinquency, including clearing the records of soldiers returning from World War II who were getting permanent rap sheets with convictions for disorderly conduct, petty theft or assault. The Federal Youth Corrections Act, passed in 1950, applied to youthful offenders charged with federal crimes throughout the United States and all crimes in the District of Columbia. The goal was rehabilitation, not punishment.

Congress eventually helped fund construction of a youth center at the site of the Lorton prison in Fairfax County, Va., to house most Youth Act prisoners from the District. There, the sleeping quarters resembled a college campus, and inmates were required to wear coats and ties. The Lorton Youth Center had a printing plant, a dairy farm and a furniture factory for vocational training.


An inmate sits on his bed in a dorm room at the Lorton Reformatory in Lorton, Va., in 1996. (James A. Parcell/The Washington Post)

Inmates were gradually being moved from the prison in Lorton in the late 1990s. (Dennis Drenner/For The Washington Post)

But riots broke out repeatedly in the 1960s and ’70s, pushing prison officials to impose more locked-down time.

By the early 1980s, rising crime rates were souring the country on rehabilitation. In the District, residents overwhelmingly voted to implement mandatory minimum prison terms of five years for violent crimes committed with guns.

In 1984, Congress repealed the federal Youth Act, in part because there was little evidence that the law was effective. The D.C. Council and then-Mayor Barry expressed shock and disgust. Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D), then-chair of the D.C. Council’s Judiciary Committee, drafted a law for the District. Rolark, who died in 2006, said “extra care” needed to be taken to prevent young black men from being labeled as career criminals.

Barry’s administration argued that many violent crimes should be off-limits for Youth Act sentences. But Rolark’s committee said all crimes except for murder and a second violent crime committed while armed would be eligible for Youth Act sentencing.

Rolark’s committee passed the bill 3 to 1. John Ray, now a lawyer, was the lone no vote.


John Ray, now an attorney, talks about the Youth Rehabilitation Act in the District. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

“I consider myself a liberal, but I put those three as left of liberalism,” Ray said. “I grew up in Georgia, and everyone around me was poor, but I didn’t — and still don’t — accept the position that you should get a pass for violent crime because you’re poor or you didn’t come from the best family. I think people must be held responsible for their conduct.”

On July 11, 1985, the council passed the bill, 9 to 4, with Ray (D), having registered his protest, flipping his vote. Barry signed it into law that month.

But in the late 1990s, facing the threat of bankruptcy, D.C. officials agreed to a federal bailout that transferred supervision of inmates to the federal government. The Lorton Youth Center closed, and D.C. prisoners were dispersed across the country to federal prisons, where there were no rehabilitation programs expressly targeting them.

Eric H. Holder Jr., then a deputy U.S. attorney general, led a commission reviewing all D.C. criminal laws to bring them in line with federal statutes.

“No other single issue provoked as much debate in the Commission as did the Youth Act,” the commission said in 1998.

Commission members were concerned about judges’ using the Youth Act to override mandatory minimums and considered banning the act for violent offenders.

“Several commissioners observed that the inclusion of violent youthful offenders destroyed the federal Youth Corrections Act and was wreaking havoc on the D.C. Youth Rehabilitation Act,” the commission wrote.

Like all federal inmates, Youth Act offenders would now be required to serve 85 percent of their sentences. But the commission ultimately decided not to take a position on violent offenders.

In 2000, then-D.C. Council member Harold Brazil (D) lobbied for a sentencing reform act that would have excluded most violent felons from the Youth Act.

“The Youth Act makes sense for less serious crimes,” Brazil said then. “For the heinous stuff, well, it’s just not going to do much good.”

The Public Defender Service argued that young black men would be irreparably harmed.

“If this bill passes as adopted, it will almost certainly increase incarceration rates and racial disparities in the District’s criminal justice system,” wrote Robert Wilkins, chief of special litigation for the service, in an op-ed in The Post. Wilkins is now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The law was once again left intact.


Inmates in the south end hallway of the District’s Central Detention Facility. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
‘They’re just letting you off’

About half of the young offenders in the age group eligible for Youth Act sentences — those younger than 22 — receive them. Youth Act sentences account for about 15 percent of all felony sentences in D.C. Superior Court.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys turn to the law to make plea deals. The Public Defender Service’s manual highlights the Youth Act as a way to get around mandatory prison time for certain violent gun crimes.

To ensure at least some prison time in an unpredictable legal system, prosecutors negotiating plea deals often agree to not oppose the application of the Youth Act.

“If you try to prosecute a case that is not built on strong evidence, and that defendant is subsequently exonerated, all you have done is emboldened that defendant to believe he can always beat the system,” said Ronald C. Machen Jr., who was U.S. attorney in the District from 2010 to 2015. “He will feel like he is a Teflon Don.”

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) faults prosecutors as willing to offer generous deals to violent criminals.

“When they dumb down the charges, over and over, they are missing what’s necessary to put the violent repeat offender away,” he said.

Judges are given wide leeway to apply the law. In some cases, judges order inmates at the jail to undergo lengthy evaluations, known as “Youth Act studies.” The evaluations include interviews with psychologists or social workers. If defendants are not in jail, judges can allow defense attorneys to hire their own experts to conduct the studies. Judges also are authorized to give Youth Act sentences without ordering studies.

Antwon Pitt (Prince George’s County state’s attorney’s office)

Youth Act studies are not made public. The Public Defender Service, D.C. Superior Court judges and jail officials denied requests from The Post to review studies.

In 2013, Antwon Pitt was under consideration for a Youth Act sentence after pleading guilty to robbing a D.C. woman and assaulting a police officer. He had already been convicted of aggravated assault and battery in a different case and had received a Youth Act sentence for a misdemeanor.

Pitt’s defense attorney argued that he should be eligible for benefits under the law because the author of Pitt’s Youth Act study recommended that approach.

“I know,” Judge Heidi Pasichow said. “It’s very rare that people are not recommended, but he’s violent.”

Ultimately, she sentenced Pitt to the statutory minimum for robbery — 24 months — to be served in prison, and gave him a chance to have his record expunged under the Youth Act. About two months after his release from prison, Pitt committed a brutal rape during a home invasion in the Hill East neighborhood of the District. He has since been convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

Pasichow declined to comment for this story.

No study was done for William Smallwood, who benefited from the Youth Act twice — once in an assault case, then in a robbery case — before he killed a man about a year and a half later, at age 22.

Rashard Raigns (Metropolitan Police Department)

He pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder of Rashard Raigns and was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Smallwood, during a prison interview in West Virginia, said he was surprised that he was twice sentenced under the Youth Act without any evaluation.

“The Youth Act is not what it’s cracked up to be,” he told The Post. “They’re just letting you off. But you’re not getting any help.”

A spokesman from the Bureau of Prisons told The Post that the agency realizes the “greater vulnerability” of young adults and works with Youth Act offenders to develop personalized goals to prepare them for a “productive and lasting return to the community.”

Not all judges embrace the Youth Act.

Judge Jennifer Anderson, who was hearing a 2010 case involving a defendant who reached for a loaded gun and struggled with police officers, denied his request for the Youth Act. She said the defendant’s conduct was not “a single, isolated event attributable to youthful indiscretion, which is the type of case that is appropriate for the benefit of the Youth Rehabilitation Act in this court’s opinion.”

This year, criminal justice officials in the District met with The Post’s editorial board and a group of Post reporters to defend the system in the aftermath of the Pitt case. During the meeting, Judge Leibovitz, head of the Superior Court’s criminal division, characterized the Youth Act as simply a way for offenders to have their records expunged if they do not get in trouble again.

“It’s words on a page, unless and until the person is successful,” she said.

Leibovitz disputed the idea that Youth Act sentences equate to leniency. She said the court does not keep statistics on Youth Act sentences that go below mandatory minimums.

The Post’s review of 136 armed-robbery sentences under the Youth Act showed that, on average, they were two years less than regular armed-robbery sentences. The Post found at least 20 armed-robbery cases committed with guns that resulted in Youth Act sentences below the five-year mandatory minimum since 2010.

An additional 35 armed-robbery cases included the stipulation in plea deals that imitation guns were used in the commission of the crimes. Those deals sometimes were contradicted by sworn statements from the defendants that described their possession of real guns.

The Post found one case in which a man convicted of second-degree murder, Kurtis Faison, was sentenced under the Youth Act, although the law expressly prohibits the inclusion of convicted murderers. Judges and prosecutors declined to comment on the legality of the 2013 sentence issued by Judge Henry Greene.

Second-guessing

Interim D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham said community members are often frustrated when they see violent criminals return to the streets.

Bijon Brown (Courtesy of Metro Transit Police)

“They will look to the police and ask us, ‘What the heck happened?’ ” he said. “And that can be frustrating for our officers.”

Newsham said he thinks repeat violent offenders illustrate how the criminal justice system has failed to protect the public.

“Someone, somewhere along the line, should have done something to prevent that from happening,” he said.

The Post identified more than 200 criminals who received Youth Act sentences more than once for weapons offenses or violent crimes in the past decade.

In February 2015, Bijon Brown lived in Forest Ridge, a public housing complex in Southeast Washington where spray-painted numbers mark the apartment buildings. A short hike down a hill leads to the turf of a rival neighborhood crew.

On a Monday morning on Presidents’ Day, Brown confronted two teenage boys near a small basketball court. He opened fire, striking one of them in the leg. Brown later admitted to the shooting and told police officers that he had thrown the gun into the Anacostia River.

Brown’s defense attorney said there had been an ongoing neighborhood feud. The attorney said Brown had only been trying to scare the boys.

Judge Anita Josey-Herring (Michael Temchine/For The Washington Post)

“I understand I made a mistake and all that, but, I’m just trying to get my life in order, that’s all,” Brown told Judge Josey-Herring.

Brown pleaded guilty to attempted assault with a dangerous weapon. The prosecutor and defense attorney agreed on a six-month sentence, with all time suspended. Prosecutor Scott Ray said in court filings that Brown had accepted responsibility for his actions and had saved the system considerable resources by swiftly taking the plea deal. The prosecutor did not oppose the Youth Act for Brown’s case.

The judge gave Brown the agreed-upon sentence and put him on probation under the Youth Act.

“The hope is that, you know, this will be the last time that we all see you and that you will have a productive life,” the judge said.

On Aug. 21, 2015 — 29 days into his probation — Brown opened fire aboard a Metrobus after a rival neighborhood crew surrounded the bus. The shooting was captured on video, and police quickly identified him as a suspect.

After the identification, Mayor Bowser held a news conference to put a spotlight on Brown. “These are the folks that are driving a lot of the crime in the District,” she said, questioning why he had been released so quickly.

Three weeks later, police officers found Brown hiding in a friend’s closet.

He pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm, with an agreement that prosecutors would not request more than 15 months’ incarceration. This time, prosecutors opposed giving Brown the Youth Act.

“He took that entire bus full of people and he took them into a battle zone,” prosecutor William Schurmann said.

Brown told the judge that he planned to turn his life around and move away from his violent neighborhood once he was released from jail.

“The picture has been painted of me that maybe I am a monster or I am somebody that may just want to carry around guns shooting at people,” he told Josey-Herring in April. “I just want to let everybody know that I am not the monster that everybody looks at me to be.”

Josey-Herring sentenced him to a year and a day in jail under the Youth Act.

By August 2016, Brown was out of jail, with credit applied for the time he had already served.

Nine days after Brown’s release, a man reported that he had been held at gunpoint during a carjacking near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station in Northeast Washington. Later, during a police chase, the fleeing car crashed into a front yard, and its three occupants fled. Brown was caught. He was charged with unauthorized use of a vehicle. His case is pending.

In September, Josey-Herring took a moment on the bench to reflect on Brown’s past sentencings. She cast blame on the juvenile victims of the first shooting, saying they had been “terrorizing” the neighborhood. Then she said the Metrobus shooting had looked like “something out of ‘Straight Outta Compton’ ” because of the “mob” of men that confronted Brown.

“I really think it is easy to Monday-morning quarterback judges as we are making decisions that have more context,” she said, staring at a Post reporter taking notes in the courtroom. “Because otherwise, you just get a computer and it spits out a sentence.”

Josey-Herring declined a Post request to comment on the Brown case.

‘He’s 19 years old’

On Oct. 3, 2013, Mikiyas Getachew took a taxi to his home in Northeast Washington. It was about 2:45 a.m., and as he fumbled with his key to open the door, he felt the barrel of a gun against the back of his head.


The former residence of Mikiyas Getachew and his family in Northeast Washington, where they were robbed at gunpoint in 2013. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

He looked up to see men in ski masks. They took his wallet, Tag Heuer watch and cellphone. They forced him to unlock the door, pushing him inside. The commotion awoke his mother and his fiancee, Nava.

The robbers held them at gunpoint on their knees. The men carried televisions out of bedrooms, grabbed laptops and took Nava’s $5,000 engagement ring.

The men loaded the items into the victims’ cars, a Nissan Altima and a Honda CRV, and took off. The men set the vehicles ablaze six miles away, behind a shuttered school in Southeast.

Later that day, D.C. police surrounded an abandoned house a few blocks away from where the vehicles were set alight and found the suspects and goods stolen from the Getachew home. The man prosecutors said had the gun at the start of the crime, Andre Townsend, then 19, was on pretrial release in a case in which he allegedly assaulted two young men with a handgun.

Getachew pleaded for harsh penalties for the perpetrators: “What we would like to see is justice being served to the fullest against these defendants.”

Nava and Mikiyas Getachew never found the engagement ring. They have since moved away from the District.

If Townsend had been convicted of all 18 charges against him, he could have faced 29 to 65 years under sentencing guidelines. Prosecutors said Townsend had expressed remorse. They offered a plea that dropped 14 of 18 charges, including three of armed kidnapping.

Judge William Jackson (Michael Temchine/For The Washington Post)

But prosecutor Ben Schrader told Judge William Jackson that the Youth Act was not appropriate for Townsend.

“This is not a one-off robbery case,” he said. “It’s a concerted effort by a group of people to commit a pretty heinous act.”

Defense attorney Kelli Neptune said the authors of a Youth Act study had recommended that Townsend receive the benefits of the law.

“The Youth Act is given even in homicide cases,” she told Judge Jackson. Townsend said he wanted to speak.

“I want to say I apologize to the victim and my family, and that’s it,” Townsend said.

Judge Jackson said he thought the sentence in the plea deal reached between the defense and the prosecution was light, but he accepted it. He sentenced Townsend to 48 months for armed burglary and 48 months for armed robbery, to be served consecutively.

Although the judge said it was a “very close” decision, he decided to apply the Youth Act to Townsend, who is to be released in 2020.

“He’s 19 years old,” Jackson said. “So, that’s why I’m doing it.”

Shareem Hall, whose fingerprints were found at the scene of the crime, accepted responsibility for his actions and pleaded guilty to several charges, including conspiracy to commit a crime of violence while armed, which carries a mandatory prison term of at least five years.

“I want to say that I’m truly, truly sorry to the victims. . . . I just pray that they forgive me,” the 21-year-old said to Judge Jackson in 2015. “I no longer want to take from people anymore.”

Invoking the Youth Act, Jackson suspended Hall’s entire eight-year prison sentence and set him free on probation.

Earlier this year, police identified Hall as a suspect in the slaying of Dodds, the transgender woman shot during an attempted robbery on July 4 in Northeast Washington. Hall and a co-conspirator now face the charge of “first-degree murder while armed-felony murder.” Their preliminary hearings are scheduled for Dec. 9.

When police caught up with Hall in September, he was wearing a gray backpack. Inside, police said, was a Smith & Wesson .40-caliber handgun loaded with 10 rounds of ammunition.

Washington Post researchers Jennifer Jenkins, Alice Crites and Magda Jean-Louis, and graduate students Shaun Courtney and Teaganne Finn, contributed to this report. Courtney and Finn are attached to The Post’s investigative unit through a program at American University.

How The Post studied the Youth Rehabilitation Act

To study the implementation of the District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act, The Washington Post drew from a number of sources, combining information where possible for a more complete understanding of the effects of the law.

The Post requested and received a data set from the D.C. Sentencing Commission containing all 3,188 felony sentences issued under the Youth Act from January 2010 to April 2016. The data did not contain information on the identities of those sentenced but included the ages of offenders, dates of conviction, charges at conviction and a statistical weighting of their criminal histories.

The Post wrote software to search the Districts’s online court database to identify all publicly available criminal cases, felony and misdemeanor, 168,265 between January 2007 and November 2016. The Post then pulled docket information on every case and analyzed the data, identifying all felony and misdemeanor crimes sentenced under the Youth Act that have not been expunged. By matching crimes and sentencing dates to the Sentencing Commission’s data, The Post was able to identify 85 percent of the 3,188 felony offenders sentenced under the Youth Act since 2010.

The Post also identified upward of 3,000 misdemeanor crimes for which sentences were given under the Youth Act. Because the Sentencing Commission does not track these crimes, reporters could not determine how many convictions have been expunged because sentences have been successfully completed.

The Post also requested data on those arrested on homicide charges in the District since 2010 from the Metropolitan Police Department. Using data pulled from the District’s court website, reporters identified 121 individuals arrested on homicide charges who previously were sentenced under the Youth Act. Reporters verified the identity of each offender by pulling files at D.C. Superior Court.