CHICAGO – The trial of a teen boy charged in the beating death of a 16-year-old Chicago honor student began Tuesday with jurors watching a video showing the teen punching the other boy in the face — a recording played around the world that drew attention to school violence.
Prosecutors told jurors the teen was part of a mob that descended on Derrion Albert as he made his way home from school in September 2009. On the video, Albert could be seen being punched, slammed over his head with large boards, kicked and finally stomped on his head.
“Those injuries acted together to cause the death of Derrion Albert,” Cook County assistant state’s attorney Lisa Morrison told the jury. “The damage inflicted on him was too much for his body to handle.”
The boy, now 15, sat in court with his hands folded. His attorney told a different story — that of a freshman new to Fenger High School who got caught up in a fight he had nothing to do with. Attorney Richard Kloak acknowledged his client punched Albert as he staggered to his feet after being knocked on the head with a long board.
But, “his act did not cause the death,” of Albert, Kloak said.
Albert’s beating was captured on cell phone video and shown around the United States, providing the most vivid example of the escalating violence that in a six-month period claimed the lives of more than 20 Chicago public school students. His death prompted President Barack Obama to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to the city.
The boy, who isn’t being identified because he is a juvenile, is one of five people charged with murder. The other four are charged as adults and have not gone to trial.
Kloak told jurors before they watched the video that nowhere can his client be seen doing anything else to Albert.
“He didn’t stomp anybody, hit anyone with a stick or hit anyone on the ground,” Kloak said. “He may be guilty of something else (but) he is not guilty of first-degree murder.”
Kloak said if convicted of first-degree murder, his client could be sentenced to prison until he is 21. Kloak added that if the teen violates conditions of his sentence he could receive 20 to 60 years in prison.
The court was crowded with friends of both Albert and the defendant. Albert’s mother wore a T-shirt with his picture. Some people left the court in tears as prosecutors showed the video, sometimes in slow motion.
One witness, T’awannda Piper, testified that she watched the fight unfold and ran outside to try to save Albert. Piper said when she and others pulled Albert into a community center where she worked, “he gasped for breath. I felt he was trying to respond but he couldn’t.”
Piper said she didn’t know Albert but knew his name because he was wearing his school name tag.
After Albert’s death, Mayor Richard Daley proposed initiatives including the deployment of more police officers to work in three-hour overtime shifts coinciding with school dismissal times, and beefed up the police presence at public transportation stops where students congregate.
Meanwhile, even as a couple of dozen students left Fenger after the Chicago Public Schools offered to find them another school, police launched a database that tracks daily incidents of violence near schools and even such mundane things as curfew violations.
CPS spokeswoman Monique Bond said that a number of programs are in place to help students get safely to and from public schools as well as such initiatives as conflict resolution programs for kids once they are inside the schools.
“I’m not aware of any incident of extreme violence, no shootings, since then (at Fenger),’ she said.