Sunday, June 07, 2009

When Justice Fails

I ran into this story this morning out of Indiana. It demonstrates what happens when justice fails...

June 7, 2009

By Jerry Davich, Post-Tribune columnist

James Writt simply wanted a box of Hamburger Helper for dinner. The 19-year-old Griffith teen left home at dusk on April 15, 2008, and walked toward the grocery store where he worked as a stock boy. Writt, unable to drive a car due to developmental disabilities, walked everywhere in his neighborhood, including to work each day.

On this evening, as he walked 35th Avenue toward the Mansards apartment complex, a group of 10 or so teens approached him. One of them got in his face and asked for money. Another snuck up behind him carrying a barbell pipe. The rest watched.

Seconds later, the teen with the barbell -- allegedly Bryon Hill, police say -- struck Writt in the head with the makeshift weapon. The blow sliced open Writt's scalp and fractured his skull.

Writt blacked out and collapsed in the middle of the road, just west of Arbogast Street. Hill allegedly kept striking Writt's head, again and again and again. Blood oozed from Writt's head, covering his face and clothes, even leaving a puddle on the street.

A motorist happened to drive by, and the group of teens fled every which way. Not one of them stopped to check on Writt. Not one of them called 911 to get him help. Not one of them cared whether he lived or died.

Writt, nearly unconscious, managed to get up and stagger back home a few blocks away. In the dark and without his glasses, only a trail of blood accompanied him home.

Writt was always a great kid, just different from other kids at school, in his neighborhood, or pretty much anywhere else.

He's had medical problems since birth, including the need for glasses at 18 months old and tubes in his ears for chronic ear infections. In the sixth grade he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a developmental disability that falls in the autism spectrum.

Those afflicted with the recently recognized neurological disorder often have difficulty understanding what those around them think and feel. Because of this, they often act strangely in social situations, or do things that may appear odd.

"In hindsight, now that I know what some of the signs of autism are, I can see he's always had it," explained his mother, Mary Wright.

In short, he lives with certain limitations, making him appear odd or quirky to others, including kids who can be very cruel about such differences. At school, he was routinely teased and often felt lonely, especially in a classroom of students.

He tried inviting fellow classmates to birthday parties. Not one of them ever showed up. So he withdrew and walked away. He's been walking ever since, just about everywhere.

"It makes him feel independent and free," Wright noted.

'Completely covered in blood'
According to Griffith Police Department reports, several teens were detained and questioned regarding the attack. All the teens were black males between the ages of 13 and 20, with possible gang affiliations.

"(Writt's) face and head were completely covered in blood," the initial police report stated. "He was later transported to Munster Community Hospital for treatment."

There, Writt spent 10 days in the intensive care unit, most days in excruciating pain. He still suffers headaches and migraines.

Back in Griffith near Writt's home, police began investigating the attack. They found the crime scene in the street, Writt's trail of blood home and, several days later, the silver and black barbell weapon, located about 50 feet in the woods along 35th Avenue.

The day after the attack, Bryon Hill was arrested on other charges, and he told officers he knew who attacked Writt. Twelve days later, while in Lake County Jail, Hill told detectives that he witnessed the attack against Writt, but he didn't take part in it.

A few days later, another suspect, Jonathan Wise, was arrested on other charges and he too told police he had information about the attack. Wise claimed that Hill was the guy who attacked Writt, and he had other friends who could confirm it.

Sure enough, they confirmed that Hill was the one who assaulted Writt. Five weeks after the attack, police showed Hill painfully graphic photos of Writt's blood-splattered injuries and he appeared "physically shaken" by them.

"Hill only looked at part of one page and then hid his head in his arm or shirt," the report states.

Weeks later, police presented the case against Hill to the Lake County Prosecutors Office.

"We thought they had the right guy, and he would be convicted for his crime," Wright said.

She was wrong.

Last month, Writt was brave enough to testify twice in his trial against Hill. But it didn't matter. Hill was found not guilty by a jury.

Writt's mother believes Hill's public defender discredited the other teenage witnesses and twisted the logistical accounts of the crime. She also still believes Hill did the actual beating and he is guilty as sin.

Hill, I'm told, is now out of jail and possibly moving to Texas.

The other suspect, Jonathan Wise, has been charged in the attack. He was arrested May 21 in Lansing and is now in Lake County Jail awaiting another interview with Griffith police.

"We are disappointed in the outcome of the trial, but we are still actively pursuing this case," Griffith Police Chief Ron Kottka said.

Last week, Writt and his mother returned to the scene. They allowed me to shadow them down 35th Avenue as they walked to the site of the beating, a site Writt has been avoiding.

As we walked, a motorist stopped to ask directions. Writt, being his usual friendly self, didn't hesitate to help the man even though he may have been facing his biggest fear a couple blocks away.

Writt, a soft-spoken man who still has an indentation in his head from the attack, didn't say much as his mother recited in detail what took place that night.

Why, I asked Writt, are you returning here now? "I want to get over it and be able to walk through here again," he replied.

In many ways, he has gotten over the attack. It's his mother who is still being assaulted emotionally, as only a protective, nurturing mother could.

On May 9, I received an e-mail from Wright. After months of deliberation over contacting me for a column, Hill's infuriating verdict of "not guilty" forced her decision.

"I want people to know what happened, and maybe they can help me understand what's wrong with our world," she told me.

Earlier that week, Wright sat in courtroom and listened to three of Hill's "friends" coldly recount how they watched Hill repeatedly beat her son unconscious with a bar. She watched as they yawned, slouched and disrespected the courtroom proceedings.

She strained to grasp how they could simply leave her boy in the middle of a dark street, in a puddle of blood, and lifeless, as cars drove past.

"They didn't call 911. They simply ran off, worried only about themselves," she told me.

One of the teens testified that he thought James was dead.

"How did he sleep that night?" Wright asked.

Another teen testified that James' blood was everywhere.

"Did he give it a second thought?" Wright asked.

The teens reportedly told their families about the attack, yet no one ever called Wright to check on James' condition or offer empathy. No one ever asked James' siblings at school what happened to him. No one ever visited the hospital. Nothing.

"Please help me understand what's wrong with people?" Wright asked as we walked down 35th Avenue. "Can you find the answer for me? Can you ask your readers for me?"

So there you have it. One brutal attack against a region man. Another brutal attack against humanity. And yet one more mother screaming in the wind without a voice.

Maybe someone has new evidence about this case. Maybe someone has something on Hill or Wise. Maybe someone has those answers for Wright.

One thing is for sure. This is not solely about James Writt and the night of April 15, 2008. This is about the world in which we live, and which we struggle to understand.

Lastly, I'm told that James lost his grocery store job and is looking for a new one, possibly involving computer work, his passion. If anyone is interested in giving him a shot, let me know.

Society as a whole may have let him down, but maybe together we can help pick him up off that dark, blood-stained street.

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