Running a limousine service and raising a new family with a new wife, Ashraf Kamel has tried to overcome the tragedy of losing his 14-year-old son to the brutal acts of a fellow seventh-grader.
The steady pulse of Kamel’s reconstructed life was shattered last week when he learned his son’s killer may one day be released from prison.
“He took my son’s life,” the suburban Lake Worth man said. “All of a sudden, after 14 years, to tell me he could get out. It’s impossible. It makes me sick to my stomach.”
In a decision that was years in the making, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life without parole even for murder. Following a 2010 decision that outlawed the same sentence for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes, such as rape or armed robbery, it means an estimated 360 Florida inmates can ask that their life sentences be reduced, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.
Tronneal Mangum, who was 14 when he shot and killed John Pierre Kamel outside Conniston Middle School one sunny January day in 1997, is among them.
“It opens a big wound,” Ashraf Kamel said of the decision. “It’s not healing because they keep on opening it.”
He said he doesn’t buy the Supreme Court’s reasoning that juveniles deserve a second chance because they are immature, unlikely to fully understand the consequences of their actions and good candidates for rehabilitation.
“He was 14 years old. He wasn’t young and innocent,” he said of Mangum.
While Mangum’s mother said after the ruling that fear fueled her son’s actions, Kamel countered that his son was no threat. Born with missing bones in his leg and a twisted foot, one of John’s limbs was amputated before he was a year old. “You don’t need much to beat him up,” he said.
Besides, he said, as it was explained to him, John, who had a prosthesis, backed up when he saw Mangum had a gun. Unsteady on his feet, he fell. That’s when he was shot.
In a statement to police shortly after the shooting, Mangum said he believed Kamel and his friends planned to “drop him” for taking a $350 watch from Kamel. In schoolyard parlance, he understood they would beat him up. A friend told police Mangum took the watch in exchange for a bike he believed Kamel owed him.
Ashraf Kamel said Mangum could have been spared a life sentence if he had revealed where he got the gun. To Kamel, Magnum’s refusal shows his cunning. To Mangum’s mother, it shows her son’s character.
Linda Steward said her son was urged to say she gave him the gun. “He wouldn’t lie,” she said. Later, she said he told her only that he got the gun from “someone on the street.”
That a schoolyard dispute erupted into murder underscores the need to treat juveniles differently than adults, according to proponents of the Supreme Court’s decision.
Bryan Stevenson, an Alabama attorney who argued the two cases that spurred the high court’s decision, put it this way: “The court took a significant step forward by recognizing the fundamental unfairness of mandatory death-in-prison sentences that don’t allow sentencers to consider the unique status of children and their potential for change. The court has recognized that children need additional attention and protection in the criminal justice system.”
Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief legal counsel for the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, agreed. While sympathizing with those who lost loved ones to juvenile killers, she said there is no doubt that the justices made the right call. Further, she said, the decision doesn’t mean prison doors will swing open for all of the estimated 2,000 convicted nationwide. In some cases, the court said it may be determined that those who committed murders when they were juveniles should remain behind bars for the rest of their lives.
To that end, Kamel said he will do everything in his power to assure Mangum is never released. But, he said, having spent a week in court in 1998 seeking justice for his son, he doesn’t relish the thought of having to endure yet another hearing where the grim details of his son’s murder will be recounted again and again.
“It’s such a slap in the face,” he said.
And it’s not the first one.
A Palm Beach County jury in 2002 agreed that the school district and teachers at Conniston Middle were negligent in Kamel’s son’s death for not addressing the growing tensions between the two youth. They awarded Kamel and his ex-wife, Marguerite Dimitri, $1.6 million. Yet they only received $200,000.
Under state law, the Florida Legislature must approve any court judgments against government agencies over that amount. Bills have been filed each year and Kamel has agreed to accept $560,000 to end the wrangling. State lawmakers have refused to approve the claim.
That bitter disappointment pales in comparison to the Supreme Court decision, Kamel said.
“The system, it’s terrible,” he said. “It’s just terrible.”
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