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Truly a jury of their peers

The jury’s decision on the 15-year-old scofflaw was swift and unanimous: Guilty. Then the 12 jurors moved on to the question of what consequences the vandal should face for his actions.

“I kinda wanna go pretty hard,” volunteered one juror in a hooded sweat shirt and basketball shorts, gesturing with his arms. “He’s reckless!”

A fellow juror, standing with arms crossed and head cocked, was a little more sympathetic.

“He’s struggling,” she says. “He doesn’t have friends, so being the class clown is an easy way to make friends.”

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The defendant was convicted of misdemeanor vandalism for turning on the emergency showers in his middle school’s science lab on a dare. The flooding did more than $2,000 in damage.

But at the moment, his fate rested in the hands of jurors just barely older than him.

The teen court, which convened after last bell on a recent Wednesday at Dorsey High in South Los Angeles, is one of 17 in the county where students decide the cases of first-time juvenile offenders accused of misdemeanors including tagging, petty theft, drug possession and prostitution.

Adults involved in the process say that these teens, who perform their civic duty with part somber responsibility and part gleeful curiosity, often know better than legal professionals why a teen did what he or she did, and what punishment will change his or her behavior.

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Take the case of a teenage prostitute who, unbeknownst to her parents, had spent a couple thousand dollars earned along Sunset Boulevard to buy clothes she kept stashed at her cousin’s home. David S. Wesley, a criminal court judge who presides over the court at Dorsey, recalled the innovative sanction a jury of her peers came up with for the girl.

“They came back with the recommendation that the probation officer and her mother take all the clothes she bought and give the clothes to charity,” said Wesley, who normally hears cases at the downtown criminal courts building. “It was such a clever, well-thought-out part of the sentence for her.”

The idea behind having teens’ cases heard by peers is that the combination of questioning, sanctions and involvement in the legal process -- most defendants are ordered back to serve as a juror on teen court as part of their community service -- will steer them away from more serious offenses. What’s more, if they follow the judge’s orders during the informal probation -- typically lasting six months -- the charges will be dismissed.

Timothy Williams, a senior who last year sat in the defendant’s chair for fighting and petty theft, said his trial before other students was intimidating and more than a little embarrassing -- but effective.

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“They pretty much understood where I was coming from,” recalled the 17-year-old, who was back in court -- this time as a juror. After he was sentenced to curfew, tutoring, community service and meeting minimum grade requirements, he has been doing better in school and hasn’t been in trouble since, he said.

“If I didn’t do what I had to do, I was going to get locked up,” he said.

There is also an element of scaring the kids straight. When students snickered during the questioning of a defendant arrested for tagging a window with a marker, Wesley told the courtroom of the case before him in his downtown courtroom: four kids, one as young as 10, gunned down by an AK-47 for tagging in the wrong place at the wrong time. Gasps and a brief silence followed.

“The hope is to keep them from ever reaching my adult courtroom,” Wesley said.

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The case of the vandal was heard in a Dorsey High courtroom complete with a judge’s bench, a witness stand and a jury box. A teenage clerk called out the names of jurors selected at random.

Once the jury was seated, the clerk read the charges: violation of penal code 594(a)(2), vandalism.

(The parents sign a form waiving the confidentiality typically applied to juvenile proceedings; the defendants are referred to only by their first name and last initial.)

The defendant, Anthony L., sat slouched in his chair, curly dark hair framing a youthful face with a fuzzy hint of a mustache. He constantly fingered the two black piercings in his lip.

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After Anthony was given a chance to briefly tell his side of the story -- “We had a substitute, a friend in class dared me to open the showers, and I did it” -- the floor was turned over to the jurors, who peppered him with questions about his motive, his grades, his future.

“Do you care that you did this? You have a nonchalant attitude,” one juror asked.

“I didn’t know it was going to cause damage,” Anthony replied.

“How come you’re so destructive?” another inquired.

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“I just do it because I like making my classmates laugh,” Anthony said.

The tenor of the questioning changed when the jurors turned their focus to the boy’s mother, Greta Galeano, a single parent who herself is a student with two younger children.

“When I saw him coming out of the police car in handcuffs, it just broke my heart,” Galeano testified.

Anthony said his mother will have to pay for the damage at the school and that it will probably take a toll on their family, especially his 4-year-old sister. His voice softened and his shoulders sank at the mention of her.

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After deliberating for 15 minutes in an empty classroom across the hall, the Dorsey High jurors filed back into the courtroom. The forewoman, plastic bangles dangling from her wrist, delivered the verdict: Anthony should perform 55 hours of community service, undergo counseling and tutoring and write letters of apology to the school and to his mother. They also recommended that he participate in a mentoring program.

Wesley sentenced Anthony to probation and released him with a few stern words of his own:

“You’re no longer the class clown,” he told the boy, who didn’t meet the judge’s eyes. “You’re going to be respectful and quiet in class. If I hear otherwise, we’re going to have a very serious talk, you and I.”

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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