Last Dec. 29 Blake Shamar Officer, a 17-year-old African-American, was on his way home from work at a local sandwich shop when he stumbled onto a crime scene in South Minneapolis. A middle-aged Latino man had been shot nonfatally during a robbery in front of an apartment building at Pillsbury and 28th avenues south. As Blake happened by, he caught the attention of police officers who believed the tall teen-ager matched the victim’s physical description of the shooter. After officers questioned him, the innocent yet nervous teen-ager was arrested, charged with four felonies and placed on house arrest. In a kind of legal limbo, he waited several months before charges against him were finally dropped.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been stopped by police or wrongly accused of a crime. Like any other teenager, Blake has made his fair share of his mistakes — he’s been busted for underage smoking, breaking curfew and even spitting on the ground — but none of his offenses has ever warranted more than a small fine. He has had no criminal history and hopes this case won’t tarnish his permanent record. Blake and his legal guardian, Barb Lickness, agreed to share the details with the Minnesota Independent, along with the related court filings, as just one example of the kinds of difficulties that children and families face when trying to negotiate the juvenile justice system.
Wrong place, wrong time
Within two minutes of the shooting, Blake was captured on a surveillance camera at the Loon Express on Lyndale Avenue South, which is six blocks away from the crime scene at 28th and Pillsbury. When police officers approached him, no evidence that could have pinned him to the crime — the silver pistol that fired the shots, the stolen food, $180 in cash or a money order — could be found.
He only remotely fit the victim’s vague description of his attacker: The alleged shooter was African-American, dressed in all black, and somewhere between 5 feet 8 and 5 feet 10. Despite the fact that Blake was wearing a gold shirt and stands 6 feet 5, the victim twice positively identified Blake as the culprit. According to the “probable cause” statement, an adult male was confronted by two juvenile males as he attempted to enter his apartment. They began grabbing him and demanding money. “One of the assailants eventually pulled out a silver handgun and used this gun to shoot E.D.S. in the leg both both assailants ran from the scene,” it states.
Twelve minutes lapsed when officers “observed an individual who fit the general physical and clothing description.” They noted that “he was breathing very rapidly and that his right arm was shaking, although Respondent had advised the officers that he had just gotten off the bus.”
Blake didn’t seem entirely forthcoming about his earlier whereabouts, according to the police reports. When police officers questioned his mom, Barb Lickness, she raised concerns that he had gotten mixed up with the wrong crowd, namely local gang members.
Police officers brought Blake to the victim, whom Blake described as “laying on his back on the ground with one eye open.” To him, it seemed like the man gestured “no.” But then a bright light was flashed across the teen-ager’s face. The next thing he knew, he was in handcuffs and thrust into a squad car. “[The police officers] tried to mix up my words. They wanted me to admit to doing it,” said Blake. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Blake was presented with two counts of aggravated robbery in the first degree and two counts of assault in the second degree (involving a dangerous weapon). A judge placed Blake on house arrest, allowing him few rights aside from attending school. “I couldn’t play basketball or hang out with friends,” said Blake. “Once, I caught myself accidentally going to the garage,” which was out of bounds.
The whole ordeal took its toll on the high school senior, who likes to spend most of his time outdoors. He began to look weak and rough around the edges. “I felt like this was the beginning to the end of my life,” said Blake, who plans to attend college in the fall and wants to pursue a business degree. “I slept a lot. I was depressed.”
As the days wore on, it seemed apparent to Blake that “the public defender didn’t care about me,” he recalled. “My probation officer thought I was very guilty. That would make me feel low.”
Blake estimates that he has been stopped by police around 100 times throughout his teen-age years. In one instance, a police officer ran up the street from where a house was being raided. Drawing his gun, he forced Blake to stretch out, face down on the sidewalk. After being handcuffed and hauled away, he was returned home five hours later with a ticket for loitering. Chastising him for breaking curfew, “a police officer told me the goal was to stop any potential member of the Bogus Boy gang,” he said. (Although he’s acquainted with some young gang members, many who attended the same elementary school, Blake maintains that he has never been involved with them. “I say hi and keep moving. I don’t sit there and talk to them,” he said.)
Last summer Blake and a few friends were approached on the sidewalk by police who said it’s illegal to walk in groups of three. One night he awoke to police flashlights pointed at his bedroom window. “Every day I have to worry about going to my house, looking like someone else who did a crime,” he said. “I worry about it every morning. I try to wear clothes I don’t think anyone else will be wearing, like a bright yellow shirt.”
He stays off certain bus routes altogether, such as those that travel Nicollet Avenue, and he takes shortcuts to his house to stay out of trouble. “I don’t like to be in this neighborhood anymore,” he said. For instance, “I wouldn’t walk down 28th Street. I don’t go to Whittier Park.”
Lickness said she had had trouble with Blake at times, but basically he is a clean-cut kid who has stayed out of trouble. “He doesn’t drink or do illicit drugs. He’s never been in a fight, and he’s never been disciplined in school for any reason,” she said.
She called his three-month experience through the juvenile justice system “a journey from hell.” Lickness, who suffered an ulcer while her husband, Kevin, had a heart attack within the same period, remembered: “It was frightening for us as parents. You hear about people going to jail all the time for crimes they didn’t commit. Especially black people. His public defender even told us we should understand that Blake could very well be going to prison. When I said, ‘There is no way my son is going to prison for a crime he didn’t commit,’ the public defender said, ‘People go to jail every day for crimes they didn’t commit.’ That shook me to my core.”
Blake’s English teacher at Ascension Academy was one of those who stood by him. “We knew this was not something he was capable of,” the teacher, Angel Sanchez, said. “We strongly believed in his innocence. We rallied behind him.”
She had high praise for the recent graduate and honor student. “He worked hard in school, stayed out of trouble and was never violent,” she said. Among his fellow students, “He’s very well-liked.”
Navigating the justice system
Sgt. Bill Palmer of the Minneapolis Police Department said he couldn’t talk explicitly about a juvenile case, but he reasoned that officers had probable cause to arrest Blake: “The police made a good-faith effort to find the suspect and arrest someone. Here was someone who roughly matched the description and who was positively identified by the victim.”
About the likelihood that Blake could’ve pulled off the crime, he said: “There are 13 minutes that aren’t accounted for. If he was hustling, he could’ve done it.”
As Blake made made slow progress through the legal system, the police continued their investigation. It took some time to eliminate Blake as a suspect, but eventually, they did. To the best of the Palmer’s knowledge, he claims, “The case was dropped. We stopped following this person as a viable suspect.”
No other suspects have been identified. While the case remains open, “we’re not actively investigating it,” he said.
Blake’s public defender did not return the Minnesota Independent’s phone calls. Nancy Peters, a spokeswoman for the Hennepin County courts, said the case couldn’t be discussed because the state’s data practices laws keep juvenile files sealed. Blake’s probation officer, Tim Turrentine, also said he could not comment on juvenile cases.
University of Minnesota Law School professor Barry Feld said it’s common for authorities to rely on circumstantial evidence to build a case. “Not quite matching a description is very common and eyewitness misidentification is among the leading causes of wrongful convictions, but we still rely on eyewitnesses,” he said via e-mail. “The standard for arrest and charging simply is ‘probable cause.’ The standard for conviction is ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ There is a considerable gap between those two.”
So, there was “probable cause” to arrest Blake, he says, but not sufficient evidence to convict him. But the first issue to work out in the juvenile court system isn’t about one’s guilt or innocence. Saran Jenkins, a Hennepin County public defender, explained that the legal process begins with the question of whether the suspect will be tried in juvenile or adult court. “[Officials] take the complaint at face value…that can be difficult for some clients to take.”
In cases such as Blake’s, where the child does not have a prior criminal background, it is still common to see applications for him or her to be treated as an adult, at least in serious cases. If tried as an adult, charges such as aggravated robbery can haunt someone for years. “A lot of consequences flow from those. Employers may look at that even though they’re not supposed to discriminate,” she said, adding, “Juvenile court is not so juvenile anymore.”