Girl, 11, to go on trial for rock incident
Mayor stands by police in face of ethnic bias claim
- Greg Lucas, Carla Marinucci, Chronicle Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 2, 2005
Fresno -- Until the afternoon of April 29, 11-year-old Maribel Cuevas' only connection with law enforcement was involvement in a mentoring program sponsored by the Police Activities League.
But that day a rock she says slipped from her hand struck Elijah Vang, 8, in the forehead. A 911 call led to Maribel being arrested by Fresno police officers, handcuffed and taken to Juvenile Hall, where she stayed for five days before a judge released her on the condition she wear an electronic ankle bracelet.
On Wednesday, Maribel is scheduled to go on trial in Juvenile Court on felony assault charges. Authorities say the rock-throwing incident was too serious to be treated lightly.
But critics of the Police Department's actions, including Maribel's father, say the treatment would have been different if Mirabel wasn't a Latina living in one of the city's poorer neighborhoods.
"If this was a middle-class or upper-class neighborhood it would have been a very different outcome," said the Rev. Floyd Harris Jr., who led a 100- person vigil Friday in front of Juvenile Hall to support Maribel.
"Police don't have the same respect for people of color in this town," Harris said.
Fresno's mayor, Alan Autry, commended the department in a statement. "In Fresno, we love our children too much to treat this like it was just a childhood dispute when in fact the consequences could have been tragic."
Maribel says she was defending herself against Elijah and other boys who had thrown rocks and water balloons at her and some of her younger siblings while they were playing behind the low chain-link fence of a relative's front yard in their largely minority neighborhood.
"She's a good girl. She's never been in trouble,'' said Martin Cuevas, father of the girl. "We are worrying what is going to happen,'' the father of six said in Spanish in a telephone interview in which he said he was surrounded by his children, ages 12, 11, 9, 6, 4 and 1.
"A criminal they don't treat like this," he said. "(Maribel) will never have trust in the police after what they did to her."
Police defended their actions, saying Maribel intended to hurt the boy and resisted arrest, kicking toward the officers and scratching one on the arm.
"As far as the criminal investigation and how it was resolved, the matter was handled in an appropriate way," said Sgt. Anthony Martinez, a Police Department spokesman. However, because of complaints, the department has opened an investigation of the handling of the case, Martinez said.
If convicted, Maribel would probably not be incarcerated, but criminal justice experts questioned the severity of the charges.
"Usually stories like this make headlines because there is something intuitively outrageous," said Michael Vitiello, a criminal law professor at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. "This is very uncommon given the ages of the children involved and all the other ways it could have been handled."
Maribel's case has attracted international attention, seemingly getting notice everywhere but in Fresno, even though the local paper has run several stories and letters to the editor.
"I was a little surprised it was more of a national and international issue," said Ken Shockley, a city spokesman. "We haven't gotten a lot of local anger or feedback. The negative e-mails have been out of state and out of the country."
Organizers of Friday's vigil say Maribel's treatment proves the need for an independent police auditor, an idea the mayor favors but the City Council has rejected. A meeting is scheduled for Aug. 27 to create a community "cop watch" program to monitor police actions.
Maribel's father said his daughter has suffered both mentally and physically from her incarceration and the intense pressure regarding her court date.
She has required doctor's visits and medicine, her father said, and a trip to a psychologist last week. "It's affected all of us a lot.''
A field-worker who earns $250 a week, Martin Cuevas says his daughter's situation has prevented him from working. "I have to go to her appointments, the lawyer, the doctor," he said.
Maribel's lawyer, Richard Beshwate, blames part of her treatment on inaccuracies in the initial police report of the incident. The report is weighed by judges, probation officers and the district attorney in deciding a case's disposition.
The police report listed Maribel's age as 13 and said she threw a 5-pound rock at Elijah, whose age was misstated as 6. He is 8. The rock caused a 4- inch gash, the report said.
A report from the hospital where Elijah was taken said the cut was 1 1/2 inches. It required several stitches. After earlier press reports, the police said the rock was actually 2 1/2 pounds. Maribel says the rock that left her hand was much smaller.
The Vangs have since moved and were unavailable for comment. Maribel's lawyer said the father of the boy, although unhappy about his son's injury, expressed regret that charges were filed against the girl.
"They misassessed what they had and didn't spend any time to investigate, " Beshwate said. "They arrested her and handcuffed her and asked questions later."
Police reports and interviews with witnesses describe the incident this way:
Maribel told her lawyer's investigator she and her 6-year-old brother were playing the front yard of a house with another boy, also 6, and his sisters, ages 4 and 3.
Elijah, his cousin and five other boys stopped in front of the house, harassing them.
Elijah threw three water balloons at her, two of which hit her in the face, Maribel said. They also threw nine or 10 rocks. Two of the rocks hit her, Maribel said, one in the shoulder, one on the side.
She picked up one of the rocks that had been tossed at her and tried to pretend to throw it, she said, but it slipped out of her hand and hit Elijah in the forehead.
Maribel's brother gave Elijah a towel to hold over his bleeding cut. She said she went to Elijah's house to tell his parents he was hurt, but they weren't there.
When she returned, Maribel's mother was there, as were police officers.
"I placed her into handcuffs and she began struggling with us," the police report says. "She threw herself to the ground and started kicking at" one of the officers, the report continues. "We were able to get Cuevas into the back of the patrol vehicle and she began kicking the door and continued crying."
Cuevas was taken to Juvenile Hall. A witness said the officers told her Maribel would be back in several hours. Instead, she stayed there five days before a hearing.
"It was filled with cholas (gang girls)," said Martin Cuevas. "My girl isn't anything like that. It was traumatic."
Told she would be returned to Juvenile Hall if the bracelet did not show she was home by 3 p.m., Maribel refused to return to school.
After being allowed by her school to leave 30 minutes early to ensure she arrived home in time, Maribel returned to classes.
At a hearing the following month, a judge allowed her to stop wearing the bracelet.
Martin Cuevas said there is one bright spot -- reaction and support from around the country.
"There has been a lot of anger about what they've done to us," he said. "We've seen letters on the Internet from Miami, Florida, all over ... people are very helpful because this is about children and the way they're treated."
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