The last of four teenagers accused of sexual assaults in a high school locker room will have his case transferred to juvenile court, a decision made Thursday by a Maryland judge that means all the 15-year-olds originally charged as adults with attacking their football teammates with a broom handle have been transferred to the juvenile court system.
Jean Claude “J.C.” Abedi, who last fall was a student at Damascus High School, where the reported attacks occurred Oct. 31, would be best served by treatment in the juvenile system, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Steven G. Salant ruled. He had made similar findings over the past month for three of Abedi’s former teammates on Damascus’s junior varsity team.
“A 15-year-old brain is not fully developed, even with a completely healthy 15-year-old, “ Salant said Thursday.
Prosecutors had argued that Abedi’s poor disciplinary record as a student, including 11 suspensions in the years before the October attacks, was among the reasons he should be tried as an adult.
“You’re talking about theft, bullying, harassment, attacks on students — multiple — fighting, sexual harassment,” Montgomery Assistant State’s Attorney Carlotta Woodward said in court.
In moving Abedi to juvenile court, Salant acknowledged the troubling behavioral record but said much of it stemmed from Abedi’s suffering for years from undiagnosed and untreated attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
School staff members as far back as sixth grade were too focused on his symptoms rather than searching out the cause, Salant said.
“There was not one psychological assessment done by the schools, not one,” Salant said, citing evidence presented to him in the case. “There was no test for learning disorders. . . . We have a kid churning and churning.”
The rulings do not end the prosecutions. The suspects carried the same rape charges into the juvenile system. Outcomes there are geared toward rehabilitation and treatment, and punishment often is probation with no public conviction on a record. Adult courts produce a public record of the proceedings and can yield long prison sentences.
The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services assessed the defendants to make recommendations about a court venue for each. For three, it concluded juvenile court was best. Abedi was the exception, according to court hearings, with the agency recommending adult court because of concerns that included about his amenability to treatment.
Family members of at least three of the victims also wanted Abedi’s case heard in adult court, their attorneys said Thursday, where his actions would be given a public accounting and perhaps stiffer punishment if there was a conviction. “The families, the victims are outraged by the decision to send this case down to juvenile in court,” said Thomas DeGonia, a Rockville attorney who represents two families.
The judge announced his decision Thursday after a day-long hearing Tuesday on arguments over the path for Abedi’s case.
The afternoon of the reported attacks, according to police and prosecutors, the defendants turned off the lights in the freshman locker room before going after four teammates — ages 14 and 15.
“This wasn’t a prank, this wasn’t a hazing,” Woodward said. “This was rape, and multiple attempted rapes, of four freshman boys. The victims screamed and pleaded for them to stop. Instead, they went from one victim to the other.”
Abedi’s attorney, Daniel Wright, said his client was diagnosed as ADHD after his arrest in November, is taking medication and has enrolled in a different school while on bond where he recently attained a 3.5 grade-point average.
Salant picked up on that, saying from the bench: “He’s calmer. He’s more compliant” and is “amenable to help.”
Abedi and his family immigrated from Congo to Maryland in 2014. He started in middle school, going on to Clarksburg High School, where he was “thrown off of the football team because of temper,” Salant said in court Thursday, reading from school records.
His mother moved into the Damascus school district, she testified, allowing her son to start at Damascus in the fall of 2018. At 6-foot-1 and more than 200 pounds, he joined the football team there.
His behavior did not improve, prompting Damascus head coach Eric Wallich to warn Abedi his playing days were in peril. The coach also emailed teachers at the school with his concerns.
“I get an email or a phone call almost daily about his behavior in class,” Wallich stated to them, according to Salant. “I have spoken to him and made it clear that he could be suspended indefinitely from the football team. . . . It’s a shame, because this kid needs football.”
“He can’t control himself,” Wallich also stated, according to the judge.
Prosecutors described what they say was Abedi’s role in the Oct. 31 assaults and also made a new allegation that months earlier, he and a teammate had attacked another player. Abedi was holding a broom and tried to pull down that boy’s pants but the boy fought off the attempt, Montgomery County detective Dana Williams testified.
Prosecutors did not dismiss the ADHD diagnosis.
“That really can explain the distraction,” Woodward said. “Maybe the tardiness, the talking in class.”
But she said it does not explain the bullying and violence that predated Oct. 31 or what police and the victims say happened that afternoon. “They were laughing,” Woodward said of the accused assailants. “This defendant thought it was funny.”
In comments after court Thursday, the head prosecutor in Montgomery County, John McCarthy, also questioned the connection between ADHD and the alleged crimes in the case. “I don’t think there’s any causal connection between suffering from ADHD and committing violent sexual attacks.”
Tuesday’s hearing showed that school staff members repeatedly tried to help Abedi through attention from teachers, communication with his mother and decisions not to expel him.
Randi Wortman, a psychologist hired by Abedi’s family, talked about his upbringing with his family in Congo as “a very happy life.”
He also stood out in school in that country: “He wouldn’t stop talking. He wouldn’t stop being annoying, and yet he got straight A’s,” she said.
Wright called Abedi’s mother to the stand Tuesday. She recalled a pediatrician visit three years ago during which the doctor recommended a medicine to calm her son. “All I can say is I was uneducated about the subject,” Patience Abedi Kalombola said, explaining why she declined the medical advice.
Wright said that as the case proceeds in juvenile court, he will challenge allegations made by prosecutors about the role his client played during the assaults. “He is not the monster they made him out to be,” Wright said.
To explain Abedi’s school record, prosecutors turned to Steven Neff, the director of pupil personnel and attendance services for county schools. Neff testified about details in the earlier 11 suspensions — a suspension connected to the Oct. 31 case made it 12— and correspondence between educators and Abedi’s mother.
The first six suspensions through the seventh grade included punching a student, making vulgar and suggestive comments to girls and making a bold threat.
In the threat case, which resulted in a five-day suspension, Abedi allegedly told a student that “he would shoot the student, her family, and if the family had a dog, he would shoot it, too,” Neff testified, reading from records.
In March 2017 when Abedi was in eighth grade, Neff said school officials wrote to his mother that “we are continuing to see Jean Claude engage in behavior that distracts from teaching and learning and directly affects the safety of others.”
Abedi was suspended three times as a ninth-grader at Clarksburg, Neff testified.