Citizens Academy students get education

Published 10:19 pm Thursday, March 15, 2018

Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Marie Walls has been a prosecutor in Suffolk for nearly two decades, and in that time, she’s seen evidence of some of the worst things that could possibly happen to children in the city. She explained the details behind these tragedies to Suffolk Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Citizens Academy participants in the third-floor jury room at the Godwin Courts Building Tuesday evening.

Walls was one of the presenters for the sixth annual program. Citizens ages 18 and older signed up for eight different sessions throughout March. They’re learning about general crimes, child abuse crimes and victim and witness services. Participants also learn about the city’s other constitutional offices.

“I want to find out how the city runs,” said Katheryn Starks at the Tuesday presentation.

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Community Outreach Coordinator Joan Turner said 68 people signed up for the academy this year, a sharp increase compared to the 38 that registered last year. Starks heard about the class from a friend at church and was deeply affected by the presenter Tuesday.

“This was extremely revealing. I just learned so much and was interested for every minute of it,” Starks said.

Walls dove into the disturbing elements that constitute child sex crimes. The circumstances differ depending on the age of the victim and the relative age of the defendant. Cases where the defendant is at least 18 years old and is proven to have had sexual intercourse with a victim that’s 13 years old or younger come with life sentences.

“People need to understand exactly what’s involved in these types of cases,” she said.

She didn’t spare any details of prosecuting these crimes. Each horrible act committed on a child is tallied to calculate an equally appropriate sentence. Questions about what their attackers did to them are brutally specific.

She walked through cases such as Larry Keith “Bear” Baker, who was age 66 when he was arrested in 2012 after a 13-year-old family acquaintance told police he had photographed her nude and that he touched her inappropriately on numerous occasions, according to a Suffolk News-Herald report. The grand jury indicted him on 38 counts of various sex crimes in 2013.

The key to successfully prosecuting these cases is to vividly relate the victim’s pain to the judge and jury. She recalled reading off the names of the pornographic files found on Baker’s computer in front of the jury.

“You could see the jurors’ faces react,” she said.

As many as 93 percent of child sex crimes are committed by someone the child knows personally, according to Walls. An estimated one in three girls and one in seven boys will be sexually abused at some point in their lives, and yet 88 percent of these cases are never reported to the authorities.

“It is a crime that occurs in darkness,” she said. “It is a crime of quiet.”

But there are signs. Evidence hidden in the attackers’ premises, or marks of self-harm on the victims. There are signs in cases of child abuses as well, like malnourishment.

A report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds nationwide, according to Walls, and approximately 80 percent of children that die from abuse are under the age of 4.

Such was the case with Suffolk couple Linwood McKinley Jones Jr. and Shawntay Demetria Jones, who were sentenced for the 2008 starvation death of their 11-month-old daughter.

“An autopsy determined that the girl had died of malnutrition and severe dehydration,” according to a Suffolk News-Herald report. “She weighed 17 pounds at the time of her death, and had lost weight since her last doctor’s visit, according to Dr. Michelle Clayton, a prosecution witness from Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters.”

Walls explained how prosecutors depend on investigators to collect photographic evidence of details in these crime scenes. They discovered a “cluttered, nasty” interior with trash, half-eaten food, dirty diapers, clothes and empty bottles on the floor, according to Detective David Burke in the report.

“Child abuse is always sad, that people would do that to a child and that they think can get away with it,” Eleanor Harris said.

Walls emphasized that it’s up to both local law enforcement agencies and citizens to keep children in their community safe from harm.

“It’s our job to be the watchers of our community, and the watchers of what happens to our kids,” she said.

The academy’s graduation ceremony will be held at the Godwin Courts Building on March 29.