It was a lazy Sunday, and the three kids looking for something to do wandered over to the school. Though it was closed for the summer, they went in. They left with a few 50-cent Snickers ice cream bars from a cafeteria freezer.
No one denies that what they did was wrong, but many classify it as closer to a "schoolboy prank" than a crime, deserving a reprimand or maybe a term of community service. "Make them clean up the school," someone suggested.
The letter of the law said something else.
Regardless of what was taken, the law said that what happened was a burglary, a felony. Regardless of his childlike face, one of the three youths, Dehundra Caldwell, was an adult under the law: Two weeks earlier, he had turned 17.
And regardless of his good grades and lack of any previous police record, his sentence was fixed: Caldwell received three years in prison.
The statutes and Uniform Rules of Superior Court are clear, judges and prosecutors here insist. If so, little else about the case is.
Was the sentence, as some say, really just a reflection of strict, rural attitudes about law and order, or have those traditional views become mixed with fear as rural crime has tripled in recent years?
Why did others who pleaded guilty to crimes at the same time get probation? Was the black teen-ager a victim of racial discrimination, as the NAACP contends?
Why does the judge say he didn't know the youth's age when it was included in court documents? Is the system--three judges handling 6,781 cases last year--too swamped to allow time for such inquiries?
And, finally, why did no one plead for leniency--not the youth's family, nor his court-appointed lawyer, nor his school--until it was too late?
"We're a pleasant community, a good place to raise kids. . . . Now people think, 'Well, here's this hick town,' " said Betsy Hueber, executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, housed in a renovated building on the handsome courthouse square in this old textile-making town of 9,100, an hour or so south of Atlanta.
"The basic feeling is outrage that this kind of thing has occurred, then embarrassment because of all the publicity," Hueber said. "The boy did a wrong thing. But the failure of the system is a shame and a travesty for him, if it's not resolved. I think it's going to be."
Superior Court Judge Andrew Whalen had set a hearing for next month to reconsider the sentence he imposed--which prosecutors call standard in the strict local circuit--but later announced he instead would forward the case to the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, which gave no indication when it would be considered.
After spending 10 days in jail, the youth is free on $15,000 bond and has returned to 11th grade.
He has said that he, his 15-year-old brother and a 16-year-old friend were walking to play basketball when they stopped by the Upson-Lee Middle School on July 11. He has contended they entered through an unlocked door, though authorities say they found signs of forced entry.
The other two boys, who allegedly took the ice cream, have received punishment in Juvenile Court--Caldwell's brother was ordered to perform community service; the other youth, who had a juvenile record, was sent to a detention home.
As Dehundra Caldwell appeared headed for three years in prison as an adult, the Atlanta Constitution editorialized that the case represents "all that's wrong with this state's criminal justice system."
Responding in a letter, Whalen said the youth was advised of his rights and of the sentence in a plea bargain agreement he signed, and that no one asked for leniency.
The court was being criticized, the judge said, "for following the law and doing its duty as that duty appeared to be."
But if rules and duty were followed, why are townspeople so upset?
"You'd think they were schizophrenic in a way, but they're not," rural sociologist Douglas Bachtel said.
Rural areas often are less tolerant of "deviant behavior," especially crime, Bachtel said from his office at the University of Georgia. In addition, "there's a fear factor here," caused partly by reports of urban crime in the news media but also because rural crime is up sharply.
FBI figures show that in 1960, there were 423 crimes per 100,000 rural residents in the United States; by 1990, that figure was 2,022 crimes, a 378% increase.
Still, Bachtel said, after demanding the kind of tough system that brought Caldwell's three-year sentence, another set of rural values apparently took over in Thomaston: "They said we need to show some compassion. We need to set him on the right road."
Richard Bishoff, Caldwell's lawyer, acknowledges criticism of his handling of the case. "We've done some soul-searching, I'll tell you that," he said. But he insists the representation he gave was his best and reflected his understanding of fixed courthouse practices.
"You know, you can Monday-morning-quarterback all you want . . . but with what we have to work with here, I did what I knew to do, I guess," he said.
After reviewing police files on the school break-in, he doubted his client would be acquitted in a trial. That meant working out a plea bargain, though lawyers in this circuit say there's little to bargain over: Admitting burglary gets you three years--no probation, no first-offender treatment.
"It's just kind of an unwritten rule," Bishoff said. "I can't go and pull you something like a court directive that says, 'We will not accept a first-offender.' "
In fact, it can be found in writing. A sentence ordered by one of the three local circuit judges, Ben Miller, was thrown out in April by a state appeals court that cited his statement: " . . . This is a big folks' court, and I don't use the first-offender treatment. Never have, never intend to."
Such a "mechanical sentencing policy," the appeals court said, citing an earlier opinion, amounted to a refusal to exercise discretion and "an abdication of judicial responsibility."
Miller refused to comment, saying he had expressed himself fully in an open letter defending Whalen and the plea bargain. Such deals, he noted, resolve most of the 2,300 criminal cases in the busy circuit, where 4,400-plus civil cases also were disposed of last year.
But some say the sentence was not just a reflection of rigid rural law-and-order in a heavily burdened court.
"What happened to Dehundra Caldwell was commonplace," said Bruce Roberts of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People in Atlanta. "It's an overreaction to the idea that black males are violence-prone. So often, the discipline way outstrips the offense."
While police, prosecutors and judges use discretion in handling youths who are white or better off, Roberts said, poor blacks "are always held to the letter of the law . . . especially in Mayberry."
Studies by the University of Georgia found that black youths were disproportionately committed to the state juvenile justice system and that they stayed in detention on average 27 days longer than white youths.
Mark Irvin, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Caldwell, vehemently denied race figured in the case. He reviewed past cases to confirm white youths received the same punishment, he said. Upson County is about 28% black.
"I still seriously think that we acted properly," Irvin said, noting that the offense was not stealing ice cream but rather illegally entering a building. "Burglary is burglary," Irvin said.
Asked to explain why other defendants, including some charged with drug possession and drunk driving, received probation and fines on the day Caldwell received a prison term, he said, "I guess it's just not seeing these as equivalent offenses."
Dehundra's mother, Teresa Caldwell, said she simply didn't know what to do when her son was charged. "I'm 33 and I've never had contact with the legal system before," she said.
She said she has concentrated on protecting her son, whom she described as confused and "devastated" by the case.
"He's a good kid. . . . He knows what he did was wrong," she said.
She expressed gratitude for the support many have given, including a white Baptist church that sent a note listing members praying for the family. Teresa Caldwell will pray too, she said, throughout the "long, hard, agonizing month" until the new hearing.
North of Thomaston a week ago, a bus with "State Prisoners" stenciled on the side pulled over along Highway 19, and a crew of inmates climbed out to swing sickles at weeds as a guard watched.
Just down the road, Dehundra Caldwell, who might have been among them, was in school. He wants to go on to college. One day, he said in an interview, his face turned downward and his voice quiet, he'd like to work in computers, or engineering, or maybe the law.
"This whole experience turned me to the law," he said.
He thought for a moment, under the eye of his mother. "No," he said finally, shaking his head. "I can't answer that the way I want to."