A week before Thanksgiving, the jurors in a criminal courtroom at the New York State Supreme Court found a teen-ager guilty of second-degree murder. The young man, Mark Acevedo, 17, faces a sentence of 25 years to life; he will be in his forties before he’s eligible for parole.
Acevedo’s gang-related case is not unique. Teenage violence is the second leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States and increased poverty levels have triggered a rise in violence in certain parts of New York City. A recent U.S. Department of Justice study shows the rate of youth gang activity increased to 34.5 percent in 2009 from 32.4 percent in 2008. And the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice shows the biggest number of youth in detention in New York City come from the city’s poorest neighborhoods; East Harlem, St. George, South Jamaica, South Bronx, etc.
“Violent crime is largely a function of poverty. You won’t see many violent crimes on the Upper East Side of Manhattan,” said defense attorney Eric Sears, Acevedo’s lawyer. “Those are people who have difficulties [living in projects] that they have to deal with where people in wealthy neighborhoods don’t have.”
Acevedo’s journey to court follows that pattern. It began in July 2010. In the afternoon on a sunlit, hot, humid day, 911 received more than a dozen calls from people near the Lincoln Projects in Harlem. One of the callers told 911 a young man fled from the scene. “He was young; maybe 20-something.” The sense of urgency penetrated from the voice.
Paramedics responded to the calls first and then police arrived on the scene at East 132nd Street and 5th Avenue. They saw a puddle of blood on the street and found a tall, heavyset black man slumped over in the passenger seat of a blue GMC Yukon. They transported the man to Lincoln Hospital, the nearby hospital, but he was later pronounced dead on arrival. The man was identified as Derek Nelson, 34.
Two days later, police arrested a suspect, Mark Acevedo.
Fifteen months after Nelson’s death, Acevedo sat alone in a Manhattan courtroom with his defense lawyer Sears. As Acevedo faced criminal charges in court, the prosecution, as part of its case, played 14 of the 911 calls received on that fatal day to re-create the chaos of the scene of Nelson’s death. Assistant District Attorney David Veiga at the New York State Supreme Court laid out what he argued is a gang related case: A youth gang member, Acevedo, had a dispute with a rival drug dealer for a territorial battle and drug distribution. Veiga argued that Acevedo received a gun from an older member to kill Nelson.
Acevedo’s trial went on for nearly three weeks and none of Acevedo’s family members attended. Acevedo’s past history, as Sears relays it, gives credence to the attorney’s view of teenage crime. Acevedo had been in and out of foster homes after his biological parents left him. A half brother, he grew up with in a foster home is his closest family member but he was never seen in the courtroom.
“These kids don’t go to school and are out all night. These boys gangbanging one street to the next, selling drugs,” she said. “Guns are packed in their book bags. Their parents have no control over them.”
The increase in violence here is evident by looking at how business at local funeral homes is doing. Marison A. Daniels Funeral Home, one of more than a dozen funeral homes in Harlem, has performed more than 20 young people’s funerals so far this year. Most of them are from violence related deaths. The number of youth funerals has been slowly going up for the past 10 years. And Daniels has seen a big change in the cause of the young people’s death over 50 years.
“Going way back, pneumonia was a big factor [in teenage death]”, said Theodore Daniels, the owner of the Marison A. Daniels Funeral Home. “Now, it’s between violence and drugs.”
What makes teenagers so violent? Acevedo’s defense lawyer, Sears believes the environment is an important factor.
“People who appear to be a success in the neighborhoods are people who succeed on the street as opposed to [getting it from] school or careers,” said Sears. “Because of this poverty, there is less perception that they have future.”
Over the past 20 years, Sears has defended various teens accused of violent crimes; many of them raised in abusive homes. He remembers many of his young clients, who like Acevedo, would sit alone in the courtroom without any family members to support them. Sears remembers a particular defendant from nearly 20 years ago.
“A 13-year-old girl killed a taxi driver. She had been in and out of a foster home, physically and sexually abused all through her 13 years. She even had various psychiatric hospitalizations. It was predictable even in her medical record,” Sears said. “The doctor said this kid needs help. You can’t just put her back to the street. And one day it just blew up.” Sears said she is still serving her sentence.
Sears, an experienced lawyer knows well that a teenager’s bad upbringing can’t be an excuse in the court. But in many cases, Sears believes some explanation exists as to why a 13-year-old or a 16-year-old would shoot and kill someone.
But to a victim’s family, no explanation excuses the crime. “I feel sorry for the kid [Acevedo],” said Nelson’s grandmother, Annie D. Nelson, fighting back tears as she walked out of an elevator door of the courthouse. But for her, it’s all about the grandson she lost, the grandson she raised.
Others, like the Harlem resident who refused to give her name, don’t excuse Acevedo for his crime, but they understand what probably drove him to do it.
“He was stupid to kill my friend,” she said. “But they need to lock up the guy who gave him the gun.”
Attorney Sears denies Acevedo had a gun at all.
“It’s more than just lip service,” Sears said. “Acevedo says, so I say, he did not kill Nelson. So nobody handed a gun to him.”
The only friend Acevedo seems to have is his long time friend Patricia Luna, 18. Acevedo made two calls from jail to her, Luna said
“He was very upset but tries to keep his head up,” Luna said outside of the courthouse. “Mark was like any teenage boy.”
Luna believes Acevedo did not kill Nelson, but is covering for someone. “He was always less violent than any of his friends. It’s very upsetting. If he didn’t do it, he will serve a lot of time,” she said.
For Sears, it’s the end to yet one more teenager’s tragic story.
“He was 16 and now is 17. He’s going to jail for a big chunk of his life. How is a 17- year-old to do the first day of a 25 year sentence,” Sears said.