Thursday, December 9, 2004
Sandra Welsh of Marina was just 23 years old when she was shot point-blank in the stomach in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Salinas with a 9mm handgun. Several boys had approached Welsh and demanded her car. When she refused, one of the boys turned to his friends and asked something like, “Should I shoot the bitch?” And then he did.
Prosecutors say that gunman was 16-year-old Joseph Cervantes. His mother, Lisa, says they’re wrong. She also says the victim claims Joseph was not the shooter.
Joseph Cervantes’ fate will be in the hands of a jury made up of 12 adult members of the community. That’s because Judge Stephen Sillman decided just over a year ago that Joseph will be tried as an adult for the attempted murder and attempted carjacking.
If convicted, the boy could serve anywhere from 30 years to life. The District Attorney’s office has offered Joseph 12 years to life in exchange for a guilty plea. Lisa Cervantes says they won’t get the plea because her son is not guilty.
‘It’s a death sentence for these kids. By the time they come out, they’re hardened, don’t function, their childhood stripped with no hope of getting it back. There’s no such thing as rehabilitation.’—Evelyn Gracia
If Joseph had been tried in juvenile court, his sentencing range would have been slight compared to what he faces now. His mother, and many like her, believe that would be more fair.
Victims’ Rights, Kids’ Lives
In March of 2000, 62 percent of California voters made Proposition 21 law. Among other things, the proposition provides that district attorneys can directly file a child’s case in adult court. Before Proposition 21, the decision was left up to the courts.
Community members like Evelyn Gracia see giving that authority to prosecutors—or the mere fact that children are being tried as adults—as nothing short of blasphemous.
“It’s cruel and unjust,” she says. “How can we take the mind of a 16-year-old, and compare that to the mind of an adult, and hold them accountable in the same kinds of ways?”
Locally, the district attorney’s office rarely direct files juvenile cases in adult court. Except in extreme cases, that decision is left up to local judges. The same was true in Joseph Cervantes’ case. Judge Sillman made the decision. But that decision doesn’t ease Lisa Cervantes’ mind.
“There’s something wrong here, that we throw kids in with adults and say they’re anything like each other,” she says. “They’re not. The decisions they make aren’t the same.”
No one disputes the fact that violent kids should be punished. It’s the nature of that punishment that’s at issue.
“My heart goes out to [Welsh],” Gracia says. “She’s a victim. And whoever did this needs to be punished.” If it was a child, Gracia thinks the California Youth Authority is best equipped to handle the case, because the Youth Authority is mandated to rehabilitate children—though in reality it may just be the lesser of two evils.
“Adult prison is just a slow death for them,” she says.
Salinas City Councilmember Sergio Sanchez says voters were bullied into Prop 21. He campaigned hard against it at the time.
“People thought it would deter kids from getting involved in gangs and committing crimes,” Sanchez says. “But for some kids, it’s a rite of passage. For some, it’s even glorified that they’ll end up in prison. It’s the path they’re expected to take. They go into it with the mindset of, ‘Well, I’m going to prison anyway, so what do I have to lose? Dad was there, Grandpa was there, and I’ll go too.’”
Sanchez says the best approach to change that mindset of kids is early intervention, not suppression once they’ve adopted the thought.
“It starts at home,” he says. “It’s not teachers or police officers or neighbors who teach kids basic moral values; it’s parents. When they can’t or won’t or don’t do that, we need to step in.”
A Boy’s Life
It would be easy to pick up a newspaper, read a brief clip of Joseph Cervantes’ short life, and rush to judgment about him. Parts of his story have been told before in local daily newspapers, including the time he allegedly made what prosecutors call “terrorist threats” against a Salinas elementary school, and other times when he allegedly got into what have been made to sound like brutal fights on campus.
On the surface, he’s been painted to look a whole lot like the kid all parents fear: an angry, misdirected bully punk who preys on their own families.
It would also be easy to pass armchair judgment about his family and think, “Where are this kid’s parents? Where was his guidance?” It would be easy to think no one was ever there for him, and no one ever intervened.
The story according to Lisa Cervantes, however, is that Joseph’s “terrorist threat” was not a violent act, but instead stemmed from a $25 bet the then-13-year-old took from friends who dared him to e-mail the school with the threat. His mom says he’d always been into computers, designing Web pages and whatnot. A week after the event, the school notified Lisa Cervantes. He served 21 days in juvenile hall and was released on probation.
His “brutal fights,” she says, weren’t plural. She says there was a single incident when another boy pushed Joseph, and Joseph hit him back.
“He did things most kids do,” she says. “Yes, he got in a fight, and yes he made the bet,” she says. And that, Cervantes says, is what others have labeled his terrible past.
As for the question of where Joseph’s parents have been all along—Cervantes says they’re where they’ve always been: working and raising a family. While Lisa Cervantes hasn’t had contact with Joseph’s biological father since she was pregnant, she is now married to the same man who entered Joseph’s life when Joseph was just a year and a half old.
The day we spoke, Lisa Cervantes was off work from her retail job in order to go to Oscar F. Loya Elementary School in Salinas. It was parent-teacher conference day for one of her three younger boys. She planned to go as a matter of course, just as she always did with Joseph’s teachers. “I was here, and I always have been,” she says.
Sanchez says parenting falls by the wayside when parents don’t get involved, don’t ask questions, don’t do what Cervantes has been doing all along. “It’s easier,” he says, “to just look the other way. But we have a bigger responsibility than that.”
Cervantes says she asked the questions: where Joseph was going, with whom, and when he’d be back. She says she stayed in contact with his teachers and made sure he kept up his grades. She snooped through his room, rifled through his backpack, read his letters. “He used to get mad at me. But it was my job,” she says.
But doing all the right things doesn’t mean a child will escape childhood unscathed. “He’s not a perfect child, and I’m not a perfect parent,” Cervantes says. “Who is?”
Regardless, Cervantes’ son may lose the rest of his life in a system that wasn’t meant for children or for rehabilitation.
“It’s a death sentence for these kids,” Gracia says. “By the time they come out, they’re hardened, don’t function, their childhood stripped with no hope of getting it back. There’s no such thing as rehabilitation.”
Last Friday, Gracia joined Cervantes and a dozen others for a lunchtime march at the Salinas courthouse. They’re angry about Joseph. They’re angry about all children in his position. They’ll continue to march at lunch every first and third Friday for the foreseeable future.
“We have to stand up for them,” Cervantes sobs. “They’re babies. When I go see my son, he cries on my shoulder. I put on this face and stay strong for him. I’m the adult. I just hold him in my arms and let him cry. He’s the child.”
For now, there is no effort underway to repeal Prop. 21.