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The Denver Post
By Susan Greene, Denver Post Columnist
October 31, 2008 at 5:04 p.m.
Richard Stewart cremated his son on Friday.
Jimmy was 17. Days before he would have started his junior year at Wheat Ridge High School, he drank, drove and killed a man on Colfax Avenue.
He cooperated with police. He wept each time he went to court. And he wrote a six-page letter to the victim’s widow acknowledging that he messed up in the worst kind of way.
Jimmy was sorry. Very sorry. He didn’t dispute that he needed to serve his time.
Denver district attorneys chose to charge him as an adult a move made possible under a 1993 law backed by Gov. Bill Ritter when he was Denver’s chief prosecutor. Such filings force teens into adult jails and left Jimmy unwatched in a cell long enough to hang himself with a bed sheet.
It took the city 15 hours to notify the family that their boy was dead.
And now, 11 weeks after the accident, not just one life, but two have been wasted.
“He took my husband’s life, and I’m just battling every day to keep on going,” says Iman Woods, the 28-year-old widow of accident victim Nathan Woods. “But he was in pain and needed help as a teenager, a kid. He was worthy of love, of a second chance eventually. And I keep thinking if I only could have hugged him, maybe it would have helped.”
Dead kids even ones who commit vehicular homicide are remembered in superlatives.
The kid whose dad wouldn’t allow him a driver’s license until he raised his grades made his family proud of his good humor and great looks.
“Weird, but he had the face of an angel,” Woods says.
The kid who had swiped his dad’s car keys, went on a drinking spree, crossed the center line and crashed into Nathan Woods’ car still dreamed of his own future beyond bars.
“I’m looking forward to spending all my time with you and to eat a lot of spaggeitte (sic) I’ll cook to stay healthy and eat right,” Jimmy wrote his dad from jail two weeks ago. “Me and you will have the best time of our lives and I’m going to help us get a two bedroom apartment and we’ll go do things that we haven’t got to do for a while like play catch . . .
“I promise, but stay strong.”
Even a kid who killed had people who adored him.
“Not for one second did we ever think of giving up on him,” Richard said after Thursday’s memorial service.
That notion was lost on DA Mitch Morrissey’s office when it chose to prosecute Jimmy as an adult, even though he had no criminal history.
Juvenile advocates persuaded lawmakers this year to pass a measure allowing teenage defendants to remain in juvenile centers rather than jails for adults. Ritter killed the bill with a veto.
So Jimmy was yanked out of a youth center and into the county jail, where visits with family consisted of brief talks on TV monitors. He told his sisters that sheriffs kept switching his antidepressants and shuffling him from cell to cell.
“Daddy,” he would say, “I’m scared to be alone.”
Denver sheriffs hadn’t put Jimmy on suicide watch. And, for whatever reason, they weren’t watching closely enough to protect a kid the system hadn’t yet convicted from his own despair.
“It makes no sense. My heart hurts over this,” says Maureen Cain of the Colorado Defense Bar.
There’s no telling what would have happened had sheriffs watched Jimmy more closely, prosecutors shown better judgment or Ritter signed the bill.
Maybe nothing could have saved him.
But a little mercy couldn’t have hurt.
Susan Greene writes Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Reach her at 303-954-1989 or email@example.com.