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Girl Who Hit Boy With Rock Won’t Be Locked Up

Times Staff Writer

Maribel Cuevas, the 11-year-old Fresno girl charged with felony assault for throwing a rock at a boy who she said had pelted her with water balloons and rocks, was placed on six months informal probation Wednesday by a Juvenile Court commissioner.

The decision by Commissioner Kimberly J. Nystrom-Geist came on what would have been the first day of Maribel’s trial for allegedly assaulting 8-year-old schoolmate Elijah Vang with a 2-pound rock.

Instead, the Fresno County district attorney’s office backed away from its efforts to have her placed in Juvenile Hall and offered what amounted to a plea bargain, which the girl’s family accepted.

Sitting next to her attorney, dressed in pink pants, pink flip flops and a white hooded top, the girl answered with a soft “yes,” and had to be reminded to “answer in words” when the commissioner asked if she understood the various aspects of the proceeding.

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Maribel could have been sentenced to up to four years in Juvenile Hall if found guilty of the felony charge. Her parents agreed to the district attorney’s offer because Maribel did not have to admit wrongdoing, said her attorney, Richard Beshwate Jr. An earlier offer required her to admit to a misdemeanor.

“I think this was the best resolution for Maribel, the neighborhood and the community,” Beshwate said. “That’s what we were looking for from the beginning.”

In comments before the commissioner, Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Michelle Griggs expressed a similar view, saying that “informal probation is an appropriate resolution ... so the children can co-exist in the neighborhood and at school.”

The girl’s parents, Martin and Guadalupe Cuevas, said they were satisfied with the resolution of the case. “Yes, justice has been done,” said Maribel’s father, a ranch handyman and father of six.

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Elijah -- whose injury required stitches -- and his family did not attend the proceedings and could not be reached for comment.

The case of Maribel Cuevas drew national attention and sparked local protests against what some called her unfair treatment at the hands of police and the courts. When arrested in April, Maribel was handcuffed, sent to Juvenile Hall for five days and then required to wear an electronic monitoring anklet for 30 days at home.

“There’s a lot of Maribels in our Juvenile Hall; they just didn’t get the media attention,” said the Rev. Floyd D. Harris Jr., a local activist, who organized a candlelight vigil last week in support of Maribel.

Harris joined a smaller protest outside Juvenile Court on Wednesday morning that also drew protesters who traveled to Fresno in a 15-car caravan from Los Angeles, spurred on by a Spanish-language radio deejay who urged listeners to support the girl.

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Maribel’s troubles began April 29. The girl was playing with her younger brother and other friends in the gated front yard of a neighbor’s home when a group of boys, including Elijah, approached.

Maribel said Elijah called her names -- as he had done in the past -- and threw water balloons at her, striking Maribel in the head. The group also threw rocks, she said.

After the boys refused to leave, the girl said she picked up a rock that had been thrown at her and threw it back from about 25 to 30 feet away. The rock struck Elijah just above the left eye, drawing blood.

The girl said police officers later grabbed her by the back of her shirt, threw her to the ground, placed a knee in her back and handcuffed her.

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The officers’ version of the incident differs greatly. Police officers said that no other boys were involved in the confrontation and that Elijah threw only one water balloon.

Police say the girl scratched officers, threw herself to the ground and kicked in an attempt to avoid arrest. The girl’s mother, who does not speak English, attempted to speak to the officers, who do not speak Spanish. She has said that was not allowed near her daughter.

In the aftermath of media reports about the case, the Fresno Police Department faced harsh criticism and local activists called for an independent auditor to review police actions.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer stood behind the officers involved. So did Fresno Mayor Alan Autry.

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“This incident has been distorted and misrepresented,” Autry said in a statement that followed an Associated Press story on the case. “In Fresno we love our children too much to treat this like it was just a childhood dispute, when in fact the consequences could have been tragic.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, Nystrom-Geist said that informal probation is not usually an appropriate resolution for charges as serious as the one facing Maribel. But the commissioner deemed the resolution appropriate given Maribel’s age, her lack of sophistication and that this was her first encounter with the law.

Nystrom-Geist admonished the girl to “obey all laws, go to school

The court ordered the girl and her family to report to the probation department in two days and to participate in mediation with Elijah and his family through a reconciliation program run by a nonprofit group.

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If Maribel complies with the order, the case will be dismissed in February. The reconciliation gives Maribel and Elijah a chance to “apologize, shake hands and move on with their lives,” Beshwate said.

Interest in the case has grown in recent weeks, sparking a discussion on what has been called the criminalization of childhood behavior.

The waiting room of Juvenile Hall was filled Wednesday with Maribel supporters, including Diane Corbin, who gave her a bouquet of flowers.

“I wanted her to know there are many of us here who want to be her friend -- which is what I told her,” Corbin said. " ... I’m here because no child deserves to be treated the way Maribel was treated.”

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Another supporter, Chynell Harris, 14, wondered why the girl had to go through so much before being told to shake hands with the boy and make up.

“Why couldn’t they [have done] that at her house?” she asked.


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