Sunday, April 15, 2007

Corey Steplight is just 14 -- but he could get life behind bars


He had been in the juvenile-justice system often. But now Corey Steplight is facing something much bigger: A charge of first-degree murder.

Sarah Lundy
Sentinel Staff Writer
April 15, 2007

Corey Steplight spends 21 hours a day alone in his 11-by-7-foot cell at the Orange County Jail. He is charged with first-degree murder, but his isolation is for his own protection.Corey just turned 14.

He stands a little more than 5 feet tall, weighs about 100 pounds and is among the youngest defendants in Central Florida to be charged with capital murder. He is accused in the December shooting death of a 23-year-old Orlando electrician because, police say, he and a friend wanted the man's 2000 Pontiac Grand Prix with fancy rims.If convicted, Corey could spend the rest of his life in prison -- a punishment that would suit many law-and-order advocates.There's a growing debate across the country about the wisdom of trying juveniles as adults -- especially those as young as Corey.

Florida was one of the first states in the 1990s to allow prosecutors, instead of juvenile-court judges, to decide whether a youthful offender should be moved to adult court.Proponents of harsher treatment argue that juvenile crime is out of control and youngsters who commit violent crimes should be punished by the tougher sentences of the adult system. But many defense attorneys and children's advocates argue that those 14 and younger should never be tried as adults because they can't grasp the serious charges against them or understand what's going on in a courtroom.

Ticking time bombCorey's life has been littered with obstacles. He was born to a crack-addicted mother. He never learned to control his rage. He started doing drugs at 9. His parents and older brother have lengthy criminal records. He rarely attended school and can barely read. He was arrested for the first time at 11 over carrying a concealed weapon.Everybody knew Corey was headed for big trouble, including the state of Florida.The boy has come into contact with the juvenile-justice system at least a dozen times in his young life. But bureaucratic wheels turn slowly. And by the time a court-appointed psychologist signaled that Corey was a ticking time bomb, action wasn't taken quickly enough."It is my opinion that Corey is potentially dangerous to society and that he is on the brink of a downward behavioral spiral that will lead him into more frequent contact with the criminal justice system," psychologist Daniel Tressler wrote in a report to a judge a month before the shooting. "It is absolutely vital that Corey be removed from the environment in which this is taking place."But Corey wasn't removed. Another hearing was set to determine his fate. But when his court date rolled around, he was already in custody on the murder charge.

Because Corey will face adult charges, many documents in his case are public under Florida records law. The Sentinel has obtained information about his criminal background, family life, education and mental health, as well as police reports on the crime for which he is being charged. What follows comes from those documents and interviews with family members, crime experts, law enforcement and juvenile-justice officials.Ruby Steplight agreed to talk about her grandson because she knew that few people would have anything positive to say about him.

She has raised her grandson since the state of Florida placed him in her care when he was 6 months old. Corey was taken away from his mother, Traci Steplight, now 34, who has struggled with drug addiction and has been arrested dozens of times on drug, prostitution and theft charges."To me, Corey could be a very sweet child at times," said his 72-year-old grandmother.

She saw Corey soon after his December arrest, while he was being held in the juvenile-detention center. He had been through the juvenile system before, several times."He told me, 'Grandma, I'll be out in 21 days,' " Ruby Steplight remembered, referring to the maximum amount of time authorities can initially hold a juvenile in a criminal case."Honey," she said, "it's not the same this time."Early criminal offensesCorey was born in Orlando on March 31, 1993. His grandmother described him as a happy child whose rage became more and more difficult to control. He loved football as a kid and played wide receiver for the Pop Warner South Central Jaguars, but quit a few years ago when his criminal career began.

After his first arrest, he was placed on probation. In the two years that followed, doctors and social workers told juvenile officials at least twice that Corey needed a structured, secure environment. Corey violated his probation on the weapon charge at least eight times and racked up five more arrests, including cocaine possession, aggravated battery and, finally, first-degree murder."Both he was a failure in the system, and the system failed him," said State Attorney's Office spokesman Randy Means. Prosecutors decided to charge Corey as an adult now based "on the totality of the evidence of the crime and his criminal history," Means said.The juvenile-justice system in Florida is designed for rehabilitation, not incarceration. As a result, many juveniles who commit crimes -- even some violent crimes -- are released while they wait for a spot in a treatment program.

Experts say it's impossible to characterize juveniles who are accused of murder, because their numbers are relatively small. Nationwide in 2005 -- the most recent data available -- 1,260 juveniles 17 years old and younger were charged with murder or manslaughter, according to U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice.

In Florida, 96 juveniles were charged with murder or manslaughter from July 1, 2005, to June 30, 2006. Fourteen of them were from Orange County."I don't think we have bad kids. I think we have toxic environments," said Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. "A toxic environment will affect everyone, and some are more vulnerable." Still, most children with troubled lives such as Corey's don't end up in jail facing a murder charge. What separates them from Corey? Nobody really knows.The fatal nightOn Dec. 1 at about 9:30 p.m., Marcus Mason shifted his tan Grand Prix into park and left the motor running as he locked the chain-link fence behind his grandfather's body shop near the Florida Citrus Bowl. His uncle and friends were inside trying to fix a security camera that was usually focused on the dark parking lot where Mason stood.

A dark, four-door car pulled up, and a gunman dressed in black got out and ran toward Mason. He squeezed the trigger at least six times, according to reports. One bullet pierced the body of the 23-year-old Orlando native before he could yell for help.The shooter jumped into the Grand Prix and sped away.Mason was later pronounced dead at Orlando Regional Medical Center. His father, Tony Henderson, said Mason was a good man with a fiancee and a bright future. "He was the top of the lot. He was my firstborn."If convicted, Henderson said, Corey should face adult consequences."His parents can visit him where he's at," Henderson said. "All we can do is go to the cemetery and put flowers on [Mason's] grave."A break in the case came 10 hours later when a neighbor on 24th Street in Holden Heights noticed two kids taking the wheels off a parked car. The neighbor called the Sheriff's Office.

Corey lived on 24th Street. A deputy spotted two teenagers, who took off running. Deputies nabbed Corey and the second teenager, 15-year-old Bryan Nevarez, and put them in the back of a patrol car equipped with a listening device."Came right around the corner there," Corey confided to Bryan. "I'm glad I got rid of that gun and the weed, man. . . . I couldn't even get it inside. Had to throw it . . . the little bushes right there."Investigators later found several bags of marijuana, the key to the Grand Prix and a stolen Smith & Wesson .38-caliber special revolver. They also found the Grand Prix's lug nuts in the pocket of Corey's jeans.

On Dec. 12, an Orange County grand jury indicted Corey and Bryan on charges of first-degree murder, carjacking, resisting arrest and possession of marijuana. Bryan is scheduled to go to trial April 23.

A failed system
Some say Corey's criminal history illustrates the dearth of consequences built into the juvenile system. "In general, the juvenile-justice system is teaching our kids it's OK to be criminals," said Orange County sheriff's Sgt. Michael Crabb, who heads the sheriff's juvenile unit. "We don't hold them accountable."The Department of Juvenile Justice, which is responsible for sending juveniles to treatment programs, said the agency does not comment on cases, said spokeswoman Samadhi Jones.At the time of the murder arrest, Corey appeared headed toward some type of DJJ treatment program, court records show. After his Christmas Day 2005 arrest for cocaine possession, a judge ordered that Corey be evaluated at the Addictions Receiving Facility run by Human Services Associates Inc. Officials there released him after the weeklong program.

Social workers recommended he be sent to a longer-term secured residential drug-treatment program. It's not clear why Corey was released back to his grandmother's care instead. Three months later, deputies responded to a 911 hang-up at Ruby Steplight's house.She told a deputy that Corey got upset with her, picked up a knife and threatened everyone in the house if she called police. Cops arrested Corey, but his grandmother refused to cooperate with the investigation or press charges.

In April 2006, Corey agreed to accept a plea -- it's unclear what kind of plea deal -- in the cocaine-possession case. But he failed to show for his June sentencing. The judge rescheduled, but when Corey missed the July date, a psychological evaluation was ordered on his mental status. Corey failed to show for that three times: in August, September and October.

Ruby Steplight delivered Corey to Tressler, the court-ordered psychologist, on Nov. 8."He is incorrigible, he is utilizing drugs, refuses to follow directions and clearly does not have any internalized controls that would enable him to function harmoniously, at large in society," Tressler wrote in his report. He also found Corey incompetent to proceed with any hearing, plea or sentencing.Tressler recommended Corey be committed to a residential drug-treatment program. Another hearing was set for Dec. 8.But Corey was arrested in Mason's killing Dec. 2. His trial could be this summer."I was hoping they would send him to a program," Ruby Steplight said of the juvenile-justice system. ". . . I wish he had so he wouldn't be in trouble now."

Sarah Lundy can be reached at 407-420-6218 or slundy@orlandosentinel.com.

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