February 1, 2007
By TINA A. BROWN, Courant Staff Writer
Without guidance from his parents, Donnell Robertson, a husky 2006 Weaver High School graduate, had a rough life in Hartford's North End. But he stayed out of gangs, pulled his grades up and won the respect of school officials as one of Weaver's success stories.
Then in March, Robertson made a mistake - a serious one.
His school locker had been burglarized and $985 was stolen. Rather than call police, Robertson, 19, took justice into his own hands. Within days, he admitted to police he had taken a box cutter and slashed the face of the student who he believed broke into his locker.
The incident in the school parking lot led to his arrest on an assault charge. Now a freshman at Eastern Connecticut State University but facing up to 20 years in prison, Robertson's life was hanging in the balance when he appeared before Superior Court Judge Thomas P. Miano Wednesday, requesting a special form of probation rather than time in prison.
"That's all it takes is a 10-second act to destroy your life," Miano said. "Picking up a box-cutter is outrageous behavior."
Defense lawyer Patrick Tomasiewicz said Robertson knew the stakes. So they asked the judge to sentence him to a special form of probation that would keep him out of jail.
Robertson asked Paul Stringer, principal of his high school, and Ed Mickiewicz, his former geometry teacher at Weaver, to speak as character witnesses.
"He made a bad mistake in judgment. ... He's the first kid in his family to go to college," Tomasiewicz said. "I think we should take a chance on him. It's pretty hard growing up with nothing."
Robertson was contrite.
"I'm sorry," he told the judge. "I'm hoping you can grant me [the probation program]."
Stringer told Miano that Robertson had friends who belonged to neighborhood gangs, but "Donnell would not partake in those kinds of activities. Donnell was the person I could count on to say, `not here.'"
More than half of the students in Robertson's class had dropped out of school, the principal said. But when the youth told him he planned to go to college, Stringer believed him. "This is a survivor," Stringer said.
Mickiewicz, the geometry teacher, told Miano that Robertson was not a natural math student, but he elevated an "F" in the first marking period to an "A" by the end of the term.
"I find him as an amazing kid. ... He's someone who's different from a lot of my students. I hope he gets a chance to continue doing what he's doing," Mickiewicz said.
The judge said Robertson was lucky that Ian Watson, the victim in the case, was not rendered blind by the cuts on his face and had refused to cooperate with police.
"What [Watson] allegedly did was wrong," Miano told Robertson. "What you did was much worse. Violence is never an answer. ... I can't understand, with all your efforts, how you could have this lapse in judgment. This is criminal behavior."
Miano later said that before Stringer and Mickiewicz spoke, "I was on the fence."
Despite reservations, Miano gave Robertson three years in the state's Accelerated Rehabilitation Program, a special form of probation under which - if he doesn't get into trouble - his record will be erased.
As a condition of probation, Miano said, Robertson must stay in college and obey the rules of his probation. He must also perform 50 hours of community service at a charitable organization, suggesting Habitat for Humanity in Hartford as a possibility.
Prosecutor Richard Rubino did not object to Robertson's request for probation.
After the hearing, Robertson said, he felt relieved.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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