Fourteen-year-old Ronnie LeBlanc took his father’s 357 Ruger from an unlocked gun case and shot his stepmother three times as she got out of her car. She died on the spot. She was coming to pick up her two daughters for a visit according to the terms in her divorce decree. The girls were in their father’s legal custody and lived with him.
Why would Ronnie commit such a violent crime? As one of three judges sitting on the Juvenile bench at the time, the case fell to me. The reasons, as well as anyone can explain such unnatural behavior, would eventually come forth at the time of the Ronnie’s adjudication and following dispositional hearings in my Court.
I have always contended that Juvenile Courts deal with the most serious and complicated issues we humans can bestow on ourselves. The law in most states attempts, at least in theory, to give the Juvenile Court judge a wide range of solutions to deal with the desperate situations that confront them. I have found cases in Juvenile Court more challenging than the cases I sat on in “adult” court. In trial courts of General Jurisdiction, the docket breaks down into three basic categories, adult criminal cases, tort cases, and separation and divorce cases.
As a prosecutor, I had tried my fill of adult criminals. Tort cases were all about money. Separation and divorce case were mostly about angry adults arguing about property and money. Sometimes they were about who would get custody of the children and how visitations would occur. It always amazed me that some parents wanted a stranger in a black robe to tell them when, where and how they can visit with their own children because they can’t decide between themselves whether to exchange the child at McDonalds or Starbucks. In some of the criminal and tort cases, a jury decides the facts, requiring the judge only to referee lawyers during the trial.
The Juvenile Court judge, on the other hand, has to decide if a child has been abandoned by his parents to the point that all parental rights have to be severed and the child placed in the State’s custody. I can think of no more serious a decision that a judge must make than whether a parent can ever see their child again.
They Juvenile Judge alone must decide whether a natural parent has the right to prevent the adoption of a child he or she has abandoned. Juvenile court judges by themselves must determine if children have been abused or neglected by their parents to the point where the child has to be taken from the parents, either temporarily or permanently. Juvenile Court judges have to ascertain if a minor has committed a crime, like killing his stepmother. There is no jury in Juvenile Court to make this judgment.
But the most difficult judgments a Juvenile Court makes is in a dispositional hearing where the judge has to sort out parental rights and what is best for the juvenile and the community at large. That judge has to determine what to do with an abandoned or abused child or if a child can be adopted into a good home over the objections of an unfit natural parent. When a child pleads guilty or is found guilty to a crime, the judge alone has to decide what to do with that child. A Juvenile Court judge has to determine why a fourteen-year-old boy has killed his stepmother and what to do with the youth.
With the help of his father, Ronnie Leblanc obtained the services of a renowned defense lawyer. Attorney Rex Banion had spent many hours in my court as a Public Defender attorney, defending poor children charged with being delinquent by virtue of having committed every crime defined in the Louisiana Criminal Code. Rex, well-known in our local legal community for his diligent defenses, knew Ronnie’s father from a hunting club they belonged to that supplied fresh kill for a Wild Game Dinner held annually in our community.
Rex arranged to have a plea bargain conference with me and Assistant District Attorney Angela Bolin, the ADA assigned to Ronnie’s case. We met in my chambers to discuss a possible plea of “guilty” to some form of homicide.
Rex commenced the discussion by saying, “Your Honor, there is no real doubt that my client shot and killed his stepmother. As soon as he shot the victim, he went into his house, laid the pistol down and told his two sisters what he had done. They called his dad and the Sheriff’s office. The dad arrived before the police and his son admitted what he had done. The dad called me and I immediately went to their house where I advised my client to make no statements at that time. Since then, I have had time to fully review all of the facts leading up to the shooting with my client and his father. I have discussed the matter with Ms. Bolin, and the District Attorney is willing to accept a plea of being a delinquent by having committed the crime of manslaughter. We are willing to enter that plea, Your Honor, if you will allow me to present evidence at a dispositional hearing before you decide what you are going to do with Ronnie.”
I replied to Rex, “You know that is standard procedure in all cases. I will listen to all evidence you and the District Attorney have to present at a dispositional hearing.”
The next day Rex entered a plea on behalf of Ronnie Leblanc, admitting he was a juvenile delinquent by having committed the crime of manslaughter of his stepmother. I ordered the defendant to remain in custody until the dispositional hearing, which was set about a month away to give all attorneys time to prepare evidence.
Prior to Ronnie’s case, I had presided over several cases where children had been charged with–and found guilty of–a homicide. There was the case of the thirteen-year-old who strangled his playmate to death. In the case where an old lady was beaten to death with a baseball bat, I found a fifteen-year-old guilty of the crime. I found the fourteen-year-old boy guilty of murder when he randomly shot a customer in the local Burger King. On and on these cases went. In the eight prior homicide cases I presided over in Juvenile Court, the juveniles suffered from severe mental illnesses which helped explain their actions.
At the time of the first dispositional hearing, no evidence was brought forth showing obvious mental illness in Ronnie’s past. He appeared to be a “fairly normal” kid. He made good grades in school and played football and basketball. Evidence illustrated he had not engaged in fire setting, or animal torture and he didn’t seem to have a problem wetting his bed, all of which I had seen in severely disturbed kids. Ronnie had no juvenile record. So why did this “fairly normal” kid shoot his stepmother to death?
At the first dispositional hearing, State Probation Officers and my own Court Probation Officer painted the basic picture of Ronnie for me. He lived with his father, a natural sister and two stepsisters. He saw it as his duty to protect his sisters from harm, either perceived or real.
Bad relations developed between him and his stepmother, the victim, from his early childhood. Ronnie’s father had ongoing battles for years, both physical and verbal with his former wife, the victim. Ronnie’s animosities were fostered by his father as the dad drew Ronnie into the fray at every possible chance. Ronnie’s father induced even more hatred of the step mother by telling Ronnie that his undescended testicle was caused by his stepmother kicking him in the groin when he was a small child. This total fabrication was designed to create more animosity in Ronnie’s heart. Young Ronnie had no way to know that an undescended testicle is purely a congenital matter.
Ronnie’s father, who had a continued vehement battle with his former wife, also convinced his son that the stepmother harmed Ronnie’s stepsisters when they were with their mother. Being very protective of these girls, this weighed heavily on Ronnie’s adolescent mind.
An avid hunter, Ronnie’s father taught his son how to use firearms of all calibers. The dad kept many guns in their home, supposedly in a locked gun case. Investigation clearly showed that on the day of the tragic shooting, the gun case was unlocked–which gave Ronnie free access to his father’s 357 Ruger. Why was this gun case conveniently unlocked at this particular time?
I needed to know more about Ronnie Leblanc, so after the first dispositional hearing, I set another hearing, at which time I appointed Dr. Raymond Evans, a psychiatrist who had testified in my court on many occasions. I could trust Ray to give me a thorough, professional and sensible psychiatric evaluation of Ronnie so I could better determine what to do with this enigmatic youth.
Ray testified at the next dispositional hearing that Ronnie had no classic mental health issues. Ray found no delusional, paranoid, schizophrenic, antisocial, or character disordered behavior. He did find that Ronnie had the strong need to protect his sisters. He also determined that Ronnie’s father had enormous control over Ronnie’s mind. Ray even suggested that it was entirely possible Ronnie committed this horrible crime under his father’s subtle influence.
After listening to evidence presented by the District Attorney and the defense attorney for the better part of two days in two dispositional hearings, I came to several conclusions that enabled me to issue a judgment. Testimony came from Sheriff’s deputies that had investigated the case, probation officers that had gathered evidence on Ronnie’s history and the opinions of Dr. Raymond Evans. All of the testimony concluded that Ronnie shot and killed his stepmother without warning. It illustrated that Ronnie feared for his sisters’ well-being, whether justified or not. The evidence led me to believe that Ronnie’s father had fostered in Ronnie’s adolescent mind the hatred he held for his stepmother.
Although it could not be proven for a fact, I had grave suspicions that Ronnie’s dad may have actually been complicit in the killing of the victim by encouraging Ronnie’s actions and leaving a lethal weapon available for him to commit this vile crime.
But what to do with this adolescent who admittedly committed manslaughter? Giving him “Juvenile Life”, as the kids that came before me called it, would mean that Ronnie would be sent to the Louisiana Training Institute (LTI), the euphemism for the Juvenile Corrections System. This would mean that he would be held until his twenty-first birthday, then released back into the community without any supervision. During his stay at LTI he would be given minimal schooling, no therapy to help him understand and accept this significance of his actions, and he would be among some of the best trained, most violent juvenile offenders the state had to offer. Given that he had committed a homicide, Ronnie would probably gain status among his inmates at LTI–all to his and the community’s detriment.
Dr. Evans agreed to work with Ronnie in therapy for the next six months then report back to the court to see where we could go from there. After the six month period, all parties reconvened in my court for a review hearing. Dr. Evans thought Ronnie had made progress in therapy. The doctor felt he was not a threat to the community. He felt Ronnie needed long term therapy away from his father in a structured environment such as a group home. He recommended a home in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he had a colleague he felt could successfully work with Ronnie.
Based on all that I could learn, I committed Ronnie Leblanc to Department of Corrections custody until his twenty-first birthday with the specific provision that he be housed in the group home suggested by Dr. Evans. I further ordered that he be provided continued therapy and that I receive reports on Ronnie every three months or as need be. I set up reviews in my court of Ronnie’s case for every six months to keep track of his progress.
On one of my visits to north Louisiana for an aunt’s birthday, I stopped by unannounced to visit Ronnie at his group home. I had learned early in my career that if I arranged a visit to one of the children I had place into a facility, I just got the “Beeny-Weeny” tour of the facility. It was all spit and polish when I arrived and the staff were on their best behavior. Unannounced visits were disturbing to facility staff, but most useful in seeing how the facility really operated. Kids that I met later had been known to ask me, “Were you there on the day they served steak? No. You were there the day they served shrimp?”
I visited Ronnie, because one of the periodic reports sent to me suggested that in Ronnie’s opinion some of the older residents of the home were abusive to some of the younger children. He seemed to have a need to correct this perceived injustice. I spoke directly to Ronnie at the group home, “Son, I’m concerned that you feel a need to play the role of avenger.”
He looked down at the floor for a few minutes, then up at me, “Judge, Your Honor, Sir, my counselor, Mr. Baker and I been talking about this. He’s helping see what’s my responsibility and what’s not.”
His counselor confirmed that he and Ronnie had worked through this issue. I know avenger shows on television are titillating and such fantasies may be useful in helping us adults work through everyday life frustrations, but they have no place in the mind of an adolescent. Ronnie continued through adolescence, moving eventually to a residential school with other kids, still seeing Dr. Evans from time to time, but not returning home to his father’s influence.
If the main purpose of punishment is to prevent future crimes, I hope I succeeded with Ronnie Leblanc.
The best information I have is that Ronnie has become a useful adult without committing any more serious crimes.