Tuesday, June 22, 2010

From refugee to jail to graduate

By Rebecca S. Rivas of the St. Louis American
Thursday, June 17, 2010 12:10 AM CDT

Liberian refugee Junior Harry, age 19, has dreadlocks down to his shoulders. His love for music has gotten him through many tough times. And his smile sparks when he talks about playing with his six-member group, West Africa Entertainment.

“I hope to become a professional musician one day,” he said.

In April 2007, Harry performed a first rap at a show through the International Playground Performing Arts Group for refugee teens.

Four days after the show, Harry was arrested and put in the St. Louis City Justice Center, an adult jail. He was 16. For one year, he waited to be charged with a crime.

“It was my first time in life for me sitting in jail, being among people who murdered,” Harry said. “Sitting among people who were older than me, who could hurt me or take control of me. I thank God that God was there with me.”

There were times he had to fight so other inmates wouldn’t mess with him. His face scrunched in disgust thinking of being in “lock down” for 24 hours at times.

“It was hard being in jail, but at the same time, I learned how to take care of myself,” Harry said. “And I learned that I'm never going to go back there again.”

On May 24, Harry graduated from Roosevelt High School. It was his first step towards a promise he made to himself – to “continue advancing and becoming a better person,” he said.

The case

In April 2007, police arrested Harry at Roosevelt with charges of statutory rape. He was 16 then, and his girlfriend, also Liberian, was pregnant for the second time at age 14.

At the time, Harry was waking up every morning at 5 a.m. to bathe his infant son, Melvin, get him to day care and then catch the school bus.

Yet his girlfriend’s family was not pleased with the pregnancy. Someone encouraged the family to call the authorities about the situation.

In Missouri, a person commits statutory rape in the first degree if he/she has sexual intercourse with a person who is younger than 14. If his lawyer could have proven that he was 16, his case would have been heard in the juvenile courts within 72 hours. He would have been sent to a juvenile detention center, rather than the adult facility.

When Harry came to this country in 2004, he did not have his birth certificate, and his grandmother couldn’t speak English to tell the Immigration and Naturalization Services his age. So, INS guessed his age, and their guess put him at 18 instead of 16 (his actual age) when he was arrested.

The case was confusing, especially for a family that does not speak proper English well. Their language skills could not get them far in the courtroom.

However, a concerned member of the community, Myron Buchanan, contacted Liberian officials in an effort to help. He found out that Harry’s birth records were destroyed in the country’s civil wars. Buchanan was able to get an affidavit from a hospital official that confirmed Harry’s real age, and Harry’s defense attorney presented it to the court on Jan. 17, 2008. Unconvinced, Circuit Court Judge David Mason set a counsel status hearing, which is a hearing that allows attorneys to give a judge updates, for March 17.

In March 2008, his court date was rescheduled for April.

In April of that year, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce postponed the court case to May 2008, saying she was still not ready to prove Junior’s age.

At that point, Junior had already been in jail for a year. Finally in May 2008, then- columnist Sylvester Brown Jr., wrote an article about the case in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, eliciting public sympathy for the youth.

On May 14, 2008, Junior Harry entered a courtroom in an orange prisoner jumpsuit with his hands chained behind his back.

The 17-year-old’s worn face only showed its youth when he smiled at the 100 people, many strangers, who had came to witness his case, driven by press coverage.

In front of all the witnesses, the judge and Joyce did not postpone the case another month, as they had been doing when the courtroom was empty. That day, when the people came to witness, Harry was released from jail.

Moving forward

One of the first offers he received after his release was an offer from a friend to work at a restaurant. He turned it down to go back to school.

“I had a choice to work for $6 an hour or go back to school and have a better job later on,” he said. “It was on me to choose what I wanted to do, and I chose to go to school and finish it.”

In August, Junior will go to Vatterott College to pursue his license in heating and cooling installation.

“I really like working with my hands. I’m a strong person,” he said. “It will take me a year to get my license, so I can get a job and take care of my family and my kids.”

Not long after Junior was released, his two children and their mother moved to Michigan. He talks on the phone with his son, Melvin, now 4. Harry plans on working throughout the summer to earn the money to go visit them.

“This is part of my life story,” he said.

“I’ve been through war and came to America. I thank God that nothing happened to me. I know I’m a peaceful man. I love my kids, and I love my family. I'm hoping one day I can take my kids back home, so they can see where I come from.”

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