This was a great year for student athletes at the University of Virginia – men's basketball and lacrosse players who headed home as national collegiate champions, but they’re not the only ones who have reason to celebrate. At the law school, graduates claim a life-changing win for one of their clients – a teenager locked up for something he recorded and posted to YouTube.
It’s not unusual for students to fight after school, but for a 15-year-old boy from Mecklenburg County, taping a dust-up and posting it online led to a five-year sentence behind bars.
“He was charged with malicious wounding by mob. You can hear him and others in the video encouraging the fight,” says Shannon Ellis, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center. She thought it ridiculous that a child could do time for using his cell phone to record a fight.
“In a reasonable system of justice this would not result in a criminal charge,” she concludes.
But in Mecklenburg County, more than 62% of kids referred to the Department of Juvenile Justice are black – among them the boy in question. Police claimed the kids who started the fight were part of a gang, and someone got hurt – so those involved could face charges serious enough to put them away for life. Because he agreed to plead guilty, the young man was sentenced to a juvenile prison until the age of 21, but Legal Aid Justice joined UVA’s Child Advocacy Clinic to challenge that. Student Jacob Bradshaw and a classmate, Jah Akande, convinced a judge to let the defendant out after just one year.
“He was overjoyed of course," Bradshaw recalls. "It gave him a lot of hope. It gave the community a lot of hope. There were a lot of people in the courtroom rooting for him, and a lot of them came up and said what a great job we’d done and how they wish everyone could get that sort of representation.”
The defendant has since finished high school with honors. Bradshaw got his law degree and a victory in the first case he would argue as a lawyer.