Rush to Judgment: Trying Kids As Adults | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Rush to Judgment: Trying Kids As Adults

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Kristin Brenemen

Tyler Wayne Edmonds took his last seventh-grade exam at Fifth Street Junior High School in West Point on a Thursday and was confident he had done well. So far, 2003 had turned out to be a pretty good year for the 13-year-old skinny honors student with short hair and big eyes.

The boy wasn't one to get in trouble, and he liked to play the trumpet. He also enjoyed hanging out with his half-sister Kristi Fulgham and going to her house in the Longview community a few miles west of Starkville, which he did every other weekend.

Edmonds idealized Fulgham, then 26. She was older, married and cool. When he visited her and her husband's house, he could eat junk food and stay up too late. They'd listen to the radio together and play with her three young children. He didn't get fussed at. At home, his mother made him do chores, made him do homework.

This was a new retreat for Edmonds. He had only gotten to know his half-sister in the past year. They grew close fast. Kristi, who had a different mother, could arrange it so Edmonds could visit their father, Danny Edmonds, without his mother or anyone else knowing. His mother didn't want the boy near his father who she divorced in 1992. Edmonds did favors for his sister, too—like covering for her with her various boyfriends. He even wrote a school essay called, "I love my sister more than I love myself."

That Friday, May 9, 2003, Fulgham picked Edmonds up after school, shortly before her husband's stepfather came by to take her three kids for the night. The siblings went out to Subway for dinner, then back to her house. There, her husband of 12 rocky years, Joey Fulgham, soon went to bed, and Edmonds fell asleep on the floor next to his sister as she worked on the computer.

Very early the next morning, May 10, Fulgham loaded Edmonds, as well as a computer CPU and her jewelry, into her car to go down to Biloxi for the weekend. On the way, they picked up her kids about 5 a.m. and then drove to Jackson to get her boyfriend, Kyle Harvey, before going on to the Beau Rivage.

While the group played on the beach, dined and bought souvenirs, her husband lay face down in his bed back home, dead from a .22-caliber rifle blast to the back of his head.

Mama, Don't Leave Me Here

Sunday, May 11, was Mother's Day. Edmonds called his mother, Sharon Clay, from Biloxi to wish her a happy day. On the trip back from the Coast in the late afternoon, his sister's cell phone started ringing with the news that Joey Fulgham's brother, Shannon, had found her husband dead.

The brothers worked together at a local car dealership, and they had been paid on Friday. Joey Fulgham had cashed his paycheck for $1,020 and put the money in his wallet. The brothers had planned to attend an air show the next day, on Saturday, but when Shannon showed up at Joey's house about noon, no one answered the door. When Shannon had not heard from his brother by Sunday afternoon, he cut the screen on the living-room window and entered the home at about 5:30 p.m. He found this murdered brother and called 911.

When Oktibbeha County Chief Investigator Robert Elmore arrived at the home, he discovered the victim's wallet missing but found no gun or shell casings. He noted that it looked like a computer CPU was missing, due to the outline on the living-room carpet.

Authorities soon learned that Kristi Fulgham had gone to Biloxi for the weekend and called her on Monday to come in for questioning. She went voluntarily to the sheriff's department, where she gave a statement at about 5 p.m., saying that her half-brother, Tyler Edmonds, had shot her husband to protect her from abuse. She had already told him to take the blame for the murder if needed because, as a juvenile, he would not go to jail for it, and she needed to raise her three children.

While Fulgham was giving her statement, Edmonds' mother Sharon Clay learned that the sheriff was looking for her son. She called in about 5:30 p.m., and they said they needed to ask him a few questions. She took him in voluntarily without any sense that he was a suspect. He was still wearing his flannel pajama bottoms, a T-shirt and flip-flops when they arrived at the station about 6 p.m.

When authorities asked Clay to sign a waiver of his Miranda rights at 6:23 p.m., she thought it meant that they could only question her son if she was there. She was firm with the deputies. "You can talk to him, but only in my presence," she instructed.

Deputies James Lindsey and Tommy Whitfield began taking the boy's statement with Clay present. Initially, Edmonds said that he had picked up a gun from his home "to shoot a dog." He claimed Joey Fulgham was alive when they left, and even waved at them. Edmonds did not know that his sister had already admitted that her husband was dead when they left for the Coast.

"So we knew he wasn't being upfront with us about what had transpired," Lindsey said later. They continued asking Edmonds repeatedly, "Are you sure he wasn't dead?"

Clay kept interrupting, saying she would have known had her son "been involved in something like this." Officers then asked her if they could talk to her son outside her presence. She repeatedly said no. No, no, no.

Soon, though, Sheriff Dolph Bryan told the officers to question Edmonds without his mother present. Whitfield took her into the lobby and told her that he didn't think her son was being honest. Edmonds still had not been charged with any crime, and certainly not a capital crime that would exempt the Youth Court requirement that a child be questioned with a parent present.

The officers would not allow Clay back in the room with her son.

This was their first mistake.

She Don't Lie to Me

Mississippi Code, Sec. 43-21-303(3), severely restricts the circumstances in which a child can be taken into custody or interrogated without an order from a youth judge, which was not requested for Edmonds. And if officers believe they can justify detaining a child, then they must do so using "the least restrictive custody."

Furthermore, state law says: "Unless the child is immediately released, the person taking the child into custody shall immediately notify the judge or his designee. A person taking a child into custody shall also make continuing reasonable efforts to notify the child's parent, guardian or custodian and invite the parent, guardian or custodian to be present during any questioning."

State law follows the spirit of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, which consistently warn that juveniles are vulnerable in police interrogations, and often give false confessions and hurt themselves. "[A] 14-year-old boy, no matter how sophisticated, is unlikely to have any conception of what will confront him when he is made accessible to the police," the high court wrote in Gallegos v. Colorado.

In Haley v. Ohio, the Supreme Court warned: "And when, as here, a mere child—an easy victim of the law—is before us, special care in scrutinizing the record must be used. Age 15 is a tender and difficult age for a boy of any race. He cannot be judged by the more exacting standards of maturity."

However, on the night of May 12 in Starkville, the interrogators of the 13-year-old Edmonds were not employing much "special care"—believing that state law exempted them from having to allow his mother to be present for his interrogation because they might charge him with murder later.

Whitfield kept Clay in the hall outside the room, while Lindsey told Edmonds that his sister had put the murder on him, "that he was the one that killed Joey."

Edmonds said he didn't believe she said that. Then, Lindsay said, "Well, would you believe her if she told you that?"

"Yes, because I don't lie to her, and she don't lie to me," the boy responded.

The officers then put him in the break room with his mother while they went to get Fulgham from another room.

Soon Chief Deputy George Carrithers, who had interrogated Fulgham, walked into the break room and grabbed Edmonds by the arm. "We'll be back in a minute," he said to Clay, not telling her that he was about to have their two suspects talk to each other.

The officer took Edmonds to Lindsey's office. Fulgham walked in, sat down and told Edmonds to hold her hand. "You need to tell them what happened. I've already told them, and they know what happened, and you need to tell the truth," she said to her brother.

Officers then took Edmonds to another room to videotape his statement, but without alerting his mother. At 8:30 p.m., officers read Edmonds his rights off tape and then on tape. At 9:30 p.m., he made his statement, with his mother in the hallway pounding on the door, yelling to be let in. But a deputy had put his foot against the door to keep her out.

'This Is My Baby'

In the confession, Edmonds said that sometime during the previous Friday night, Fulgham woke him up where he slept on the floor and put him in one of her kids' beds. Between 3:30 and 4 a.m., the alarm clock went off. He got up, and then they went into the bedroom where Joey Fulgham slept.

Edmonds said he held the .22-caliber rifle that she had asked him to bring to the back of the victim's head while she put her arms around him, and they both squeezed the trigger together.

The boy also included details that did not match the crime scene: that he saw blood sprinkles on the victim's white pillowcase after pulling the trigger; crime photos showed no blood and that the sheets weren't white.

As Edmonds finished his confession and while the tape was running, Clay finally forced her way into the room to confront a sobbing son who couldn't stand up, holding his head in his hands.

"Tyler!"

"Do, do you want him to stop talking to us? Do y'all want to—," Officer Shannon Williams said to her.

"I want to be here with him. This is my child. You have to understand."

She turned to her son, ignoring the officer, and begged to know if he was clear on what they were asking. "They're not making you say stuff you don't want to say?" she asked, as he shook his head no.

"Son, just—look, baby, tell me. Look. What's wrong? What's wrong, baby, huh?"

"I'm telling the truth," he answered.

"OK. What is the truth?" she asked.

"That me and Kristi did it."

"Tyler, y'all killed him?" Tyler continued sobbing, not answering his mother.

"Tyler! Tyler Wayne! Son, look at me. Did you for real do that, or are you just telling them that?"

"We done this."

"What did y'all do? Oh God, Tyler Wayne, are you sure you did this?

"Yes, ma'am."

"Tyler, do you know what that means?"

"Yes ma'am, momma."

"Tyler, what is going on?"

"She made me do it."

With the confession on tape to back them up, officers did what Fulgham promised her kid brother they wouldn't do if he took the fall—they charged Edmonds with murder, handcuffed him and pulled him away from his mother.

"Mama, don't leave me here," he begged as deputies took him away.

His first of many nights in custody, the boy slept in a county jail cell where they usually put the drunks. It smelled like it, too. He stared at the concrete block walls and listened to the odd clinks and other noises in the night. He didn't sleep.

Soon, Edmonds would be denied bond as authorities built a case to send him to prison for life, with parole not possible until 2053, for a murder his sister cooked up. He would sit in jail 14 months before he went to trial in 2004.

Since the 1980s, thousands of kids in Mississippi have been tried as adults, and hundreds are serving time in the adult system, says Sheila Bedi, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the former co-director of the SPLC's Mississippi Youth Justice Project, based in Jackson.

The state has no uniform tracking of kids tried as adults. In Mississippi, any child over 13 who commits a felony or uses a firearm in a crime automatically is tried in an adult court, often after a confession that may or may not be true.

True Confession ... Or Not

While in jail and after his court-appointed attorney had not shown up in four days, Edmonds called the sheriff himself to recant his confession. In his second videotaped confession, which jurors would not see, Edmonds said he did not know about the murder until after they returned from the Coast.

He said his sister asked him then to take the blame and make up a story because, if he didn't, he wouldn't "get to see my kids again." She also told him that they "wouldn't do anything to you because you (are a) minor." She wanted him to say it was an accident. But when he confessed, Edmonds did not take the full blame as she had asked. He thought he was helping his sister avoid the death penalty by sharing the blame with her.

Interrogations are tricky animals, even when it's an adult being questioned, but with children, they are rife with booby traps, as prosecutors and judges have learned repeatedly since trying kids as adults came into vogue in the mid-1990s.

Beyond the basic moral question of whether children should be treated the same as an adult under any circumstance—whether allowed to drink alcohol, marry, watch porn, work long hours or be rough-handled the same as a 50-year-old murderer—is the problem that their confessions often do not hold up in court. Or on appeal.

The reason: Kids often lie when in high-pressure interrogation situations.

Children are used to doing what adults tell them. So when pressured by a group of adults in scary uniforms, they will often say whatever they think the cops want to hear. Or what they think their family members want them to say. Or what they think will keep the real criminal from hurting them. Or what they think will get them out of a bad situation in the next 10 minutes.

Even if some prosecutors and police would rather not know about it, the evidence is overwhelming against interrogating children as if they are adults, even when they're suspects for "adult" crimes. In 2004, the Family Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law's Bluhm Legal Clinic submitted an amicus brief to the Wisconsin Supreme Court that delineated the problems with the practice established by a wide variety of researchers: (1) "juveniles do not adequately understand their Miranda rights and the consequences of waiving them and that, in making decisions, they tend to comply with adult authority figures." (2) Recent medical technology shows that "the area of the brain which governs decision making, the weighing of risks and rewards, and the exercise of judgment is still developing into the late teen years and early twenties." (3) "largely as a result of new DNA technologies, evidence has emerged suggesting that juveniles may be at a higher risk than adults of falsely confessing when pressured by police."

The brief also states that failure "to call the parents for the purposes of depriving the juvenile of the opportunity to receive advice and counsel" should be considered "strong evidence" that coercion was used to elicit the juvenile's statements.

The attorneys urged the court to require a "per se rule" that would exclude "any statements obtained from minors when such statements are made without parental, guardian or attorney consultation."

The Mississippi Youth Justice Project made similar arguments in an amicus brief filed on behalf of Edmonds' appeal in 2004.

As more and more children are charged, and thus handled, like adults, their false confessions are costing society resources, not to mention ruining the lives of children. One of the more infamous examples occurred in Northwestern's front yard when two boys, aged 7 and 8, were charged as adults for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl, Ryan Harris, in Chicago's Englewood community. Police brought the boys into the station without telling their parents they were suspects, kept them there for hours, gave them Happy Meals and cajoled them into confessing to the crime.

Weeks later, and after the handcuffed boys' pictures appeared in media, a crime lab ascertained that the semen found on the girl matched the DNA of Floyd M. Durr, an adult charged with sexually assaulting three other young girls in the area.

Chicago police had to release the boys, and ended up paying millions of dollars to the boys for wrongful arrest, but the city never admitted that they were wrong.

To understand why such an error-prone practice has become so popular, and why Tyler Edmonds' momma and many other parents have been routinely locked out of their children's interrogations for the past two decades, one has to turn the clock back more than two decades.

Blame it on crack.

Beware the Super-Predator

Before the mid-1980s, the tough-on-youth policies used against juvenile delinquents (and their parents) would have shocked the average American. But a violent youth crime surge changed the dynamic.

In 1998, the rate for serious violent crimes for youth was about the average for the previous 25 years—a trend that has continued. Youth property crime actually declined, but one youth category had diverged in a disturbing way from 1985 to 1993: murder.

Criminal researchers, including Alfred Blumstein of the National Consortium on Violence Research, have explained for years that the sudden spike in gun killings in the late '80s and early '90s (which was true here in Jackson, too) was due to the boom of crack markets coupled with increased gun availability on the streets. During that time, young people—largely young black men—were killing each other in record numbers over drug turf wars. Homicides with guns more than tripled during those eight years.

However, youth violent crimes dropped 48 percent by 1998 as the crack markets "stabilized" and police made stronger efforts to keep guns out of the hands of juveniles, Blumstein reports. By 2001, FBI Uniform Crime Reports showed that juvenile homicides were at their lowest rate since 1966 and dropped 56 percent from 1993 to 1998.

Meantime, the hysteria kept growing. It was helped along dramatically when a small group of men with inordinate power over public opinion (not to mention the ability to get quoted anytime they wanted) essentially declared a war on youth in the mid-'90s, giving a name to people's unease over youth crime and a reason to get behind trying kids as adults: the "super-predator."

John DiIulio—a conservative Brookings Institution director and Manhattan Institute fellow—gave the young enemy that name in 1995. He borrowed from a scientific theory that says that "super-predators," human hunters with a thrill of destroying, wiped out large animals of prehistoric times. His source was Northeastern University criminal-justice professor James Alan Fox who had warned that, increasingly, many of the young people then carrying guns would "kill and maim on impulse, without any intelligible motive."

"A 14-year-old with a gun in his hand is far more menacing than an adult, because a teenager will pull the trigger without fully considering the consequences," Fox warned.

In a now-infamous essay in the Nov. 27, 1995, Weekly Standard, DiIulio argued that these "super-predators" would just keep multiplying and constitute 6 percent of all juveniles by 2010: "By 2005, the number of males in this age group will have risen about 25 percent overall and 50 percent for blacks. To some extent, it's just that simple: More boys begets more bad boys."

The "super-predator" scare blew up with a Newsweek cover, "Superpredators Arrive" in January 1996 and "Teenage Time Bombs" in U.S. News & World Report in December 1995. Bob Dole used the phrase in his presidential campaign. And within a month of DiIulio's Weekly Standard piece, Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch used the words to call for harsher treatment of youthful offenders, especially drug users.

Hatch continued: "If we do not reverse these trends ... our ability to control health-care costs, reform welfare, improve the academic performance of our school-age children and defuse the crime bomb of youthful super-predators, will all be seriously compromised."

The bogeyman was the perfect excuse for Reagan's Education Secretary Bill Bennett (George H.W. Bush's drug czar) and John P. Walters (George W. Bush's drug czar) to push a war on youth. DiIulio, Bennett and Walters together published the 1996 book, "Body Count: Moral Poverty ... and How to Win America's War Against Crime and Drugs" to back up their dire predictions.

The book warned that young black males, especially, were preying on "law-abiding" society and should, thus, be herded out of schools and into jails. "Indeed, the nation's drug and crime problem is bound to grow over the next ten years, especially among young urban minority males."

Their arguments lacked logic: After saying that the Family Research Council had found that young people in the poorest neighborhoods are at the highest risk for criminal behavior, they rejected outright the idea that economic poverty drove up inner-city crime.

Instead, they blamed "moral poverty," which could be repaired only with a mix of stronger (preferably traditional) families and the most punitive criminal responses for first offenders, including juveniles. "Body Count" played the fear card: "[A]s high as America's body count is today, a rising tide of youth crime and violence is about to lift it even higher. A new generation of street criminals is upon us—the youngest, biggest and baddest generation any society has ever known."

The rhetoric helped create support for the men's tough-on-youth policy proposals and shift the country away from a separate justice system for youth. By June 1996, conservatives were pushing hard to reverse the 150-year-old separate juvenile-justice approach to separating juvenile offenders from adult prisoners. Congress introduced bills, such as "The Violent Youth Predator Act of 1996," to federalize the tougher approaches, offering block grants to states that took the harshest measures, including mandatory sentences, mug shots, adult interrogations, and penalties for states that refused to prosecute 13- and 14-year-olds as adults.

The Sentencing Project warned in 2000: "Fear of out-of-control juvenile crime and a coming generation of ‘super-predators,' compellingly if erroneously described publicly and to Congress in 1996, has undermined the traditional practice of treating young offenders as different from adult criminals—less culpable because of their age and more amenable to rehabilitation. In recent years, the focus has turned to punishment and in particular to the transfer of increasing numbers of youthful offenders from juvenile to criminal courts."

Growing Criminals

Time has proved two major problems with the super-predator scare. For one, it was a myth. The youth crime wave was already reversing before Congress adopted its federal tough-on-youth policies and even before "super-predators" became a catchphrase.

Urban crime dropped dramatically as the crack trade slowed down, as did murder by young people. By 2001, the "super-predator" scare had been completely debunked; DiIulio even admitted publicly that it was overblown. And since the "super-predator" hype, criminologist Fox has denounced the kinds of harsh policies that his theory spawned.

But the tougher policies didn't go away. Treating juveniles as adult offenders, and locking parents out of interrogations, became a familiar practice across the country, including in Mississippi, pushed by local, state and federal governments. This was a bipartisan effort: Conservatives may have spread the hysteria, but the Clinton administration supported harsh policy proposals with little-to-no research to support them.

Congress gave incentives to states to try most juveniles age 14 or 15 who committed a violent or drug-related crime as adults either automatically or at the sole discretion of the prosecutor. Traditionally, a qualified youth judge had to approve "waivers" that would allow juveniles to be handled in the adult system. Now, a district attorney could easily hang a tough-on-crime re-election campaign on the backs of a child.

The American Bar Association took a strong stand against this federal interference and block grants that, it said, would "instead give incentives to states to do just the opposite—to divert their efforts from prevention and intervention to retribution, which has been shown generally not to work."

Thus, the second problem: As the ABA predicted, the tougher juvenile policies have had the opposite effect than their cheerleaders promised. They are turning juvenile delinquents into lifelong criminals.

More than a decade after the "predator" scare, reality is showing that when young people are tried as adults and then sentenced to adult facilities, they come out and revert to crime more quickly, committing more serious offenses than those that sent them to the adult system in the first place.

In 1996, the "Body Count" trio praised the state of Florida, an early adapter to treating juveniles as adults. They especially gushed over the work of State Attorney Harry L. Shorstein in Jacksonville, who started an "unprecedented" program in 1992 that had funneled hundreds of juvenile offenders to Jacksonville's jails by the end of 1994 and scores more to serve a year or more in Florida's adult prisons. "Jacksonville's would-be street predators got the message," the authors wrote.

Or did they? A 1996 study—done the year "Body Count" came out —showed that adult treatment was increasing recidivism. Youth transferred to adult court in Florida were a third more likely to reoffend than those sent to the juvenile-justice system for the same crime and with similar prior records. Of those who committed new crimes, the ones sent to adult court reoffended at twice the rate of those sent to juvenile court.

Similar studies in states like New Jersey and New York came to a similar conclusion: Sending kids to the adult system is an abject failure when it comes to decreasing crime.

It is also worse for the welfare of the child. In 2001, The Miami Herald reported that youth in Florida prisons were nearly 21 times as likely to report being assaulted or injured as counterparts in the juvenile system.

Nationally, research shows that children in adult facilities are five times more likely to be raped, twice as likely to be beaten by staff and 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon than those sent to the juvenile system. The U.S. Justice Department reports that children in adult jails are 7.7 times more likely to commit suicide than those in juvenile detention centers.

Like adults, in this climate, even if children are innocent or if mitigating evidence exists, many prosecutors, judges and jurors want to send them to adult prison and throw away the key—even if it means violating the child's constitutional right to a fair trial.

Fulgham v. Edmonds

Authorities never thought Kristi Fulgham was innocent. Even though she tried to put the murder on her little brother, she was arrested for her husband's murder, too, on that manic Monday. Turns out she had left a trail of evidence indicating that she might try to kill her husband and then collect his life-insurance policy.

The Fulghams married when she was in her middle teens. On "The Montel Williams Show" in 2000, she admitted having an affair with Joey's best friend, who fathered her third child while the pair was married. Joey often told her she would "burn in hell." And, he said, they fought daily with him telling the audience that he would make her pay for cheating with his friend: "I'm going to remind her of it every moment I get." Still, he added, he loved her and wanted to make it work.

But it didn't. Fulgham moved out and in with Kyle Harvey in 2001, before returning to live with her husband six months before his murder, supposedly to "work it out." But she told Harvey that she planned to buy a house for her, Harvey and her kids in Jackson from $300,000 she expected to inherit from her grandmother.

In addition to taking the $1,000 in his wallet after he was dead, Fulgham had called the National Guard office where her husband was stationed and asked how much life insurance he had. She was unaware that he had changed the beneficiary on his policy from her to his mother; she believed she would get at least $300,000 if he died.

Fulgham had also asked her father, Danny Edmonds, for a pistol so she could kill her husband in his sleep. She told her dad that she was tired of her husband beating her and her kids and that she would get his life insurance money if he died.

Her dad's statement to the police about that conversation provided the probable cause and motive to arrest her and, in 2006, convict her of capital murder. She was one of three women on death row in Mississippi until her death sentence was rolled back to life in prison on Nov. 23, 2010—a change supported by the victim's family—because a social worker wasn't allowed to testify at her sentencing.

Her premeditated actions were excluded from Edmonds' trial, however. Judge James T. Kitchens Jr. agreed with District Attorney Forrest Allgood that the evidence was "inadmissible hearsay." Bizarrely, in Fulgham's trial, the same prosecutors used the evidence to show how she had manipulated her kid brother, whom they presented as another victim in the saga. But in his trial, they fought to block any evidence that would indicate that his adult sister had manipulated him into helping her kill her husband.

Edmonds' lawyer, Jim Waide of Tupelo, argued that the prosecution used a false, coerced confession and had convinced the judge to block testimony from an expert on the pitfalls of adolescent interrogations—the kind of testimony that prosecutors of young people fight hard to keep away from juries. At the same time, the judge allowed an expert for the prosecution to present a completely implausible "two-shooter theory" that happened to match up well with Edmonds' original confession.

On cross-examination, now-controversial medical examiner Steve Hayne stated that he could tell from looking at the bullet wound that two people had pulled the trigger together. He did not elaborate on the physics of his theory. Hayne did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

The judge also made it clear to the jury that Edmonds, if convicted, could not receive the death penalty because he wasn't old enough, thereby encouraging them to go ahead and convict him.

The Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed Edmonds' conviction in 2006, but on Valentine's Day 2007, the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned it, saying that he was "denied a constitutionally fair trial." The court should have allowed the jury to hear their father's statement: "Danny's testimony was sufficiently trustworthy because Danny was both Kristi and Tyler's father," Justice Bill Waller Jr. wrote for the court. "Surely, he had a significant reason not to inculpate Kristi, and it is reasonable to assume that he would not testify that she made the statements unless she really did make the statements." The court found that excluding the tape of "The Montel Williams Show" was "an abuse of discretion." Edmonds was entitled to make his case to the jury that his sister had motive to kill her husband and cajole him into helping, and it would not unfairly prejudice Fulgham in her separate trial.

"Here, the only direct evidence that Tyler was involved in Joey's murder was Kristi's allegations that Tyler killed Joey and Tyler's disputed confession. Tyler had absolutely no motive to kill Joey other than to please Kristi," Waller wrote.

In a concurring opinion, then-Justice Oliver Diaz Jr. blasted the trial court for allowing Hayne's "quackspertise" testimony, while excluding expert testimony on problems with youth confessions. "Unfortunately, these rules were arbitrarily applied when Dr. Hayne was allowed to testify to something that no man can know, and Tyler was denied the opportunity to present expert evidence in his defense," Diaz wrote. He called the decision "a disheartening example of the double standard applied to testimony in criminal cases."

Diaz took the police to task for not allowing Edmonds' mother to stay present, pointing out that the Youth Court Act applied because he had not been charged as an adult or told he was a suspect. An amicus brief filed by the Mississippi Youth Justice Project pointed out the "inherent illogic" in allowing police to question a child without his parent because they think they might charge him with murder later—thus exempting him from the Youth Court parental requirement.

"[H]is mother's removal from the room requires that we reverse and remand for a new trial," Diaz stated. And he argued that admitting the confession violated Edmond's rights against self-incrimination because a 13-year-old child cannot waive their Miranda rights "voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently."

"Tyler could not have understood the nature of the charges against him or the consequences of waiving his Fifth Amendment constitutional rights if he was never told that he was suspected of murder," Diaz said.

Diaz added that the police's use of Fulgham, which he called a "psychological ploy," to coerce Edmonds' statement (and to benefit herself) was "improper influence" and unconstitutional—and it pitted a child against three adults.

"Even if Tyler understood his rights, it is highly unlikely that a naive, 13-year-old child would disobey three adults including two police officers and his beloved sister," Diaz wrote, echoing the research on the unreliable use of adult interrogation techniques on children.

The justice also criticized the court's denial of bail to Edmonds, leaving a 13-year-old who was unlikely to flee and had no history of violence, or even of being disciplined at school, sitting in jail for 14 months awaiting trial. He quoted then-Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Charles Pickering, who had written that Edmonds had a right to bail in a bond petition hearing before his court.

Pickering wrote that he was "concerned greatly" that Edmonds was arrested May 12, 2003, and did not go on trial until July 19, 2004. "It is inconceivable that the State of Mississippi could not have found some place to incarcerate this young defendant without maintaining him in an adult population for some 14 months before trial."

Pickering slammed the court for ignoring two mental experts it appointed who found that his mental state was declining while he awaited trial, but then ordering that neither expert could testify in his trial.

"Without question, it was the State of Mississippi that was holding this 13-year-old before trial. Petitioner has raised serious constitutional issues about the incarceration of a 13-year-old held some 14 months before trial," Pickering wrote.

'Barbaric' Conditions

After his 2004 conviction, the state of Mississippi sent Edmonds to the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, where he was to stay until he turned 21 when he was to move to the state penitentiary at Parchman to live out his sentence.

The 1,500-bed facility, which opened in 2001 with 500 beds about 65 miles north of Jackson, is where the state temporarily warehouses kids serving adult time. Inmates at Walnut Grove are between ages 13 and 22. Bedi estimates 90 percent of them are black.

One of the youngest inmates at Walnut Grove, Edmonds witnessed fights, riots and retaliation. If one boy misbehaved, guards would pepper-spray the entire room, even the visitor's area. His mother was visiting once and saw a baby get pepper sprayed. Edmonds started wearing his underwear in the shower because he was terrified of being raped.

The facility had no classes or educational activities for the teens, Edmonds says. Walnut Grove hired a single teacher who would periodically stop by and visit each boy and asked if he wanted a GED worksheet. If a boy said no, she walked away.

Edmonds said yes at first, though. He was so bored when he wasn't terrified or depressed. The teacher gave the former honors student a single piece of paper with simple math problems that asked for the sum of two single-digit numbers and then left. Edmonds didn't understand how anyone could think this was high-school work. His mother found a correspondence school for him so he could work on his high-school courses during the long, empty days. Before he left Walnut Grove, he got a high-school diploma.

The teen had no counseling, no therapy, no group sessions, or any kind of intervention or help for the emotional and psychological issues he was left alone with and didn't know any kids there who did. But behavioral problems spilled out everywhere. He would stay in his cell and doodle on a piece of paper over and over until a new ink pen ran out of ink—just to see how long it would take.

"Things like two inmates arguing over a 13-cent pencil or an inmate masturbating in front of everyone when a female guard walked in the room was enough to drive anyone crazy," Edmonds says now. "These arguments and things usually turned into riots, which in turn got the whole zone or facility locked down for 24 to 48 hours."

To pass the time, Edmonds volunteered to work in the cafeteria handing out meals. A typical meal for a growing teenage boy at Walnut Grove was a hot dog, two pieces of white bread, navy beans, a peanut butter cookie and a carton of milk.

The Geo Group, based in Boca Raton, Fla., owns and operates the for-profit youth jail, which has generated roughly $100 million in less than 10 years. Geo Group holds 25 percent of the U.S. private corrections market share and manages 116 correctional facilities in the United States, Australia, South Africa and Canada. Geo Group recently merged with Cornell Companies, the former owner of Walnut Grove, in a $730 million merger. In 2005, Geo stock was $7.66 on the New York Stock Exchange. This year, Geo stock sold as high as $25.82.

"These facilities were established to give young men a second chance," Bedi says. Second chances, however, don't always coincide with a corporation's profit making. "They have every incentive to cut costs."

The Mississippi Youth Justice Project, along with civil-rights lawyer Rob McDuff and the ACLU's National Prison Project, filed a class-action lawsuit against Walnut Grove Nov. 15, condemning "barbaric" conditions. In addition to too little supervision of the prisoners, the lawsuit alleges that guards provoke violent attacks between the residents.

In January 2010, the suit alleges, an inmate ("John Doe") warned facility guards that he feared attack from his cellmate, but they ignored his warnings. On Jan. 23, the cellmate raped and assaulted him for more than 24 hours before guards intervened. The suit says that Christopher Coleman requested separation from his cellmate for his safety, and then a guard encouraged the cellmate to beat him, and watched the attack. Guards also use excessive force, the lawsuit states, including mace in unprovoked or malicious beatings.

Walnut Grove provides inadequate mental-health care, the suit alleges, pointing out that the staff do not dispense medication regularly and charges Health Assurances LLC, the Jackson-based medical contractor, with providing fewer mental-health professionals than required by its contract.

In October 2009, inmate Victor Allen hung himself from a light fixture in his cell. The lawsuit states that Allen repeatedly threatened to kill himself, but with no response from supervisors.

In the first half of 2010, Walnut Grove recorded nine suicide attempts.

Weeks before the lawsuit was announced, the U.S. Department of Justice opened its own investigation into conditions at Walnut Grove to look into "systematic violations of the Constitution" and to "focus on the protection of juveniles from harm, suicide prevention and the provision of medical care and mental health care."

'Let's Go Rob Him'

Another 13-year-old boy was arrested for murder in Jackson less than three months before Tyler Edmonds.

Demarious Latwan Banyard was shooting hoops at Jackson's Westwick Apartments about 6 p.m. on Feb. 24, 2003, with a group of teenagers. Someone came around the corner and announced: "Pizza man is out there. Let's go rob him."

One of the older guys playing basketball, Dennis Ragsdale, 19, went to his Jeep, got a gun and came back to the group.

One of the players, Traven Kyser, saw Ragsdale cock the gun and take the clip out. He handed the gun to Banyard, who had not seen him unload it, Kyser said. "Let's go rob the pizza man," Ragsdale said.

Banyard said later that he could not say no to Ragsdale—whom he called "serious" and "mean" and who had "jumped on him" the first time they met—and Kyser's statement backed him up, saying Banyard feared for his own life. Carrying the gun, he walked toward Domino's worker Robin Ballard's black Malibu with Ragsdale walking "real close" to him, egging him on: "Go ‘head, come on."

At the Malibu, Ragsdale went to the passenger side and told Banyard to go to the driver's side. "Give me the money," Ragsdale told the victim. After he didn't get the money, Banyard said later, Ragsdale "came back around" to his side. Banyard handed the gun back to Ragsdale, but it went off when he tapped the trigger, he said in a later confession. Ragsdale started laughing, and the two ran, leaving Ballard, 25 and the father of a 4-year-old daughter, slumped over the steering wheel, shot in the neck.

Soon afterward, as Jackson Det. Kent Daniels was interviewing witnesses, Banyard's mother, Sheila Banyard, called JPD to say her son wanted to turn himself in. That evening, after Banyard waived his Miranda rights and with his mother present, Banyard implicated himself and Ragsdale.

Mississippi law required that a teenager as young as 13 be automatically tried as an adult for murder. State law also required a capital-murder charge because Ballard was killed while a felony robbery was in progress. Banyard was convicted of capital murder Aug. 7, 2006. He was sentenced to life without parole and sent to Walnut Grove until he was old enough to move into Parchman.

As of early 2010, Banyard was one of eight 13-year-olds in the world sent to die in prison, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. All but one are black.

During his trial in Hinds County, with Judge Tomie Green presiding, Banyard's defense was that he believed Ragsdale would hurt him if he did not go along with the robbery plan. However, the trial court did not allow the jury to hear that if they found that Banyard might have acted under duress, as he maintained, he could not be found guilty of Ballard's robbery or have the "intent" to kill Ballard. Because that felony was an essential element of capital murder, he could not then be convicted of the ultimate crime.

The jury could have, instead, found him guilty of the lesser crime of murder, manslaughter or both, and sentenced him to a lengthy sentence, but one allowing parole.

For his role in Ballard's murder, Ragsdale pled guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Like in Edmonds' trial, the judge did not allow an expert to testify that 13-year-olds have a "propensity to be vulnerable to suggestion and influence"—which Green ruled was not relevant to the capital murder charge.

In September of this year, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that Green should have included the duress instruction and, thus, reversed Banyard's conviction and ordered a new trial. "Finding that Banyard was entitled to have an instruction given the jury which presented his theory of the case, we reverse and remand for a new trial," Justice Ann H. Lamar wrote in the opinion.

Lamar emphasized that not allowing the "duress" component was unfair to Banyard. "[T]he refusal effectively disallowed the jury from considering Banyard's theory of the case." In addition, she added, "Banyard presented sufficient evidence to support his duress theory."

Banyard has not been released, but was recently moved from Walnut Grove to the Hinds County Detention Center to await his new trial in which the jury can consider his side of the story.

The reversals in the Banyard and Edmonds cases represent a possible rollback of the trend of trying kids as adults. Whether due to mounting research that juveniles become tougher criminals when treated as adults or because police, prosecutors and judges are making errors that allow accused teens to walk free on appeal, the tide is turning against sentencing young teenagers to life without parole. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May of this year that youths cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide crime, but crimes such as those Edmonds and Banyard were accused of committing are still subject to adult treatment.

Mississippi courts try all 17-year-olds as adults now, but not for much longer. Under a new law, the only kids under 18 who will be tried as adults here are those who commit rape, murder or a felony with a gun. A 17-year-old who commits any other crime will be tried in youth court. Gov. Haley Barbour signed Senate Bill 2969 in April and it goes into effect July 2011.

So far, bills that would further reform juvenile-justice practices in Mississippi have all died in committee.

'Torching the Past'

Even at 21, Edmonds is extremely thin with narrow wrists. He can sit on a couch and pull both knees under his chin, folding his legs like a yogi. In March, Edmonds packed up his belongings at his rented house in Columbus as he filled in details of his story. Boxes in his living room were filled with framed pictures, special books and knick-knacks. He hadn't packed his large red scrapbook, yet.

When the state Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 2007, the first thing Edmonds wanted to do was eat. His mom picked him up, and they smiled all the way to the nearest Taco Bell. Edmonds ate a single burrito, then promptly threw it up. His body couldn't handle it.

When a new jury acquitted him in 2008, Edmonds decided to take classes at Itawamba Community College to become an emergency medical technician. Doing rounds in an ambulance often put him face-to-face with law enforcement from Oktibbeha County. The cops remembered him. They let him know in subtle and blunt ways they thought he was a murderer.

He bumped into the judge, the prosecutor and deputies at Walmart and Lowe's. Sometimes an awkwardly polite "How are you doing, Tyler?" would follow. He ran into regular folk, too, who were nosy. "Did you sleep with your sister?" one acquaintance asked him while he was trying to shop for groceries. Edmonds was horrified and speechless. He was ready to leave Mississippi for good.

Edmonds turned 21 this summer, soon after he moved to Yuma, Ariz., where he sells boats and spends a lot of time on the Colorado River, and works on his memoir. He had to get out of Mississippi.

He hasn't seen his sister, Kristi, in years. He doesn't want to have a single thing to do with her, and he beats himself up for being so naive to trust her. He mainly just wants to let go of the pain and hatred and move on with his life, he says.

Fulgham did write him just before Christmas 2008. He keeps the letter, which angered him at the time, in the large red scrapbook.

"12-03-08.
It's Wednesday, lunch time, and while listening to the 80s 90s lunch hour on 4101, I heard your song. Remember you use to make me play the ‘Taja' CD every time you got in my car? Hearing the song made me think of you and I needed to write and say I miss you, I love you, and I'm sorry for... well, you know what I'm sorry for. For your sake and mine, some things are better left unsaid. You do good out there okay and do all I know you're capable of doing.

I love you, Tyler. I miss you so much. Take care okay and be good.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Uncle Tyler.

Always,

Kristi"

Under the letter and next to a picture of Edmonds setting copies of his court documents on fire with a blowtorch, Edmonds wrote in red ink:

"One of the hardest things I've ever had to do is FORGIVE. Over time, I've learned that sometimes people are the most blatantly cruel beings on the face of this earth. But holding hatred inside the heart and sometimes you just have to forgive and let it go.

"Forgiving Kristi has been the single most healing factor for me."

Factual information and narrative accounts are drawn from court documents and police statements. Additional details about the teens and families come from interviews and other public records. Additional Walnut Grove reporting by Ward Schaefer.

  • Correction: In the original version of this story, Donna Ladd mistyped that "the officer" rather than "the boy" pointed to non-existent evidence, such as blood sprinkles on the pillow. She apologizes for the error.

Previous Comments

ID
161161
Comment
Note: I've added a correction above.
Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2010-12-02T10:30:35-06:00
ID
161184
Comment
This was a fantastic read. Informational and well written. It read like a good book to me! Glad to see Tyler move on, and I hope he stays away from that sister. Love her from a great distance if he has to love her at all. I hope the Jackson kid comes out all right too, and my sympathy goes out to the victims' families. There aren't any winners in these cases involving child defendants.
Author
Walt
Date
2010-12-03T17:36:36-06:00
ID
161196
Comment
Thank you, Walt. So far, this story has brought a remarkable response, and from some unexpected places within the criminal-justice system. One judge thanked us for sharing the research about trying kids as adults and said it would help him do his job better. More to come, I promise.
Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2010-12-06T13:57:31-06:00

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