An Airport Crime and Society’s Dirty Little Secret

by Susan Ashline

Read Part One

There is so much more to Darnell Jerome’s story – a secret often hidden out of shame; a secret that taught me an unforgettable lesson.

Darnell’s criminal case was so compelling that I wanted to write a story about it. When I met him last fall, he was respectful, engaging, and clearly very smart.

I wanted him to succeed.

When we’d talk on the phone after that, he was strong and encouraged, a fighter. I put my money on him.

All he had to do was show a federal judge at his April 21 sentencing that he’d found a job and was working hard, following the rules, and on a path to complete his higher education.

But I forgot about his sentencing. He was good at updating me about his case. Why hadn’t I heard from him?

Darnell’s crime was checking “no” on an employment-related form that asked whether he’d been convicted of a crime in the past 10 years. But he had been convicted of a crime. And for lying on the form, he could be sentenced up to five years in federal prison and fined up to $250,000.

The 20-year-old had been hired to work at a restaurant in the airport, and the form was for a security badge he would need to access his job, which was beyond a secure area of the airport.

“I just wanted a job,” Darnell told me.

Just one month before filling out that form, he’d been convicted of a carjacking and sentenced to probation. To avoid prison, he was ordered to go to school or get a job – not an easy task for someone with a felony.

A teenager living with his mother in a low-income neighborhood in Upstate New York, Darnell didn’t have money for school. He owed $200 for classes he’d taken at the local community college, and his admission was on hold until he paid it. He would have to find work.

And that’s when he was lucky to land the airport job.

For checking the “no” box, Darnell was found guilty in January of making a false statement, and the judge allowed him to remain free pending sentencing, but on the same conditions: he go to school or find a job.

“I have fingers crossed and God ahead of me,” Darnell told me.

Despite tallying all the dead-end applications he’d filled out, Darnell was upbeat.

“They’re not willing to hire me. It hasn’t made me get up and think differently any day,” he said, “other than keep trying. Not everyone is going to say no.”

I believed his sincerity.

Having missed Darnell’s sentencing, I went online to find details, but discovered something else –a troubling development, and a sad, hidden side to the story.

I found that Darnell had been ordered to appear before the judge on April 14. He’d had a court-imposed curfew of 7 p.m., and on March 28, he violated it. He’d gotten a speeding ticket at midnight. He also failed to tell his federal probation officer about the ticket.

The prosecutor petitioned the judge to put Darnell in jail until sentencing, arguing, “There are no conditions which would protect the public from further criminal actions.”

There were more documents. One showed that back in October, Darnell had also violated conditions of his release by failing to submit to a drug test.

I was wrong, naïve, and maybe a downright fool.

How many chances should one person get? I had backed Darnell’s seemingly sincere effort to walk the line. Now, I’d have to admit I’d made a mistake. The trouble finding work – I could understand. Beyond that, all he had to do was be home by 7 p.m.

Maybe my whole line of thinking was a mistake. I’d become a champion of criminal justice reform, posting away on social media about how drug addiction and mental health issues are to blame for a lot of criminal behavior, and that we need to help rather than lock away. But maybe “those people” are just that much more different than me. Maybe they are innately damaged and need to be blocked from society.

Then, I saw secrets that made me sad but gave me hope – hope for Darnell, and others.

There was so much more to the story. And someone cared.

Filed on April 13, 35 pages of documents by Darnell’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Steven Slawinski.

Jerome is a paranoid schizophrenic.

Wrote Slawinski, “Jerome is a young man who began to manifest symptoms of schizophrenia in December 2014. Then, as a high school senior, he suffered a psychotic break in class, was hospitalized for several days at Strong Memorial Hospital… ”

He was treated in jail after being arrested for the carjacking.

“Jerome admitted himself to the hospital after a second episode where he was responding to external stimuli and was acting guarded and withdrawn,” wrote Slawinski.

He was hospitalized after being fired from the airport job.

A psychiatric report noted Darnell’s condition caused him to have poor insight and judgment. He was unkempt, depressed, and experiencing hallucinations. Suspicious of his own brothers, he’d attempted to go after them. He’d been starting fights with family and friends, which, the assessment noted, was “very out of character.“ During intake, he presented as confused, with a poor memory, and denied being on probation.

Darnell hadn’t seen his father in 14 years and had been waiting “with great anticipation” for him to come to the area, but when he did, they’d connected only a few times. This, the report states, contributed to his latest episode.

He was put on medication.

Slawinski argued that the government’s sentencing submission did not address how a few months of jail would protect or benefit Darnell or society.

“Instead, it substitutes scorn and fear for common sense and reason.”

It offered no solutions for making sure Darnell’s mental condition would not cause problems for him or society in the future, he wrote.

Slawinski pointed out the prosecutor never mentioned Darnell’s mental health, nor asked for any treatment follow-up.

It only asked for confinement.

“In its sentencing submission, the government calls Jerome ‘lazy’ because he stole a car during his robbery offense,” wrote Slawinski. In contrast, he pointed out that in county court, the state’s own prosecutor acknowledged Darnell’s mental health was a contributing factor to the crime.

Slawinski noted that county probation records flagged Darnell for participation in Mental Health Court more than a year ago; however, only as a result of his federal conviction was he finally recommended for Mental Health Court and actively participating, and had permission to go for the next year.

That’s where he’d been since April 3.

“The goal of this program is to stabilize Jerome and continue him on the path to mental wellness and being a contributing member of society, even with his paranoid schizophrenia. This can happen, but sending Jerome to prison would have the adverse effect of putting him back at square one when he is released.”

Slawinski stated the government had gone through exhaustive effort to “demonize” Darnell and portray his actions as much more sinister than they actually were. “Let’s be clear, though: Jerome’s administrative offense never posed any danger to anyone.”

He’d provided his driver’s license and social security number to airport authorities, and they checked his criminal record.

“Jerome was never even in any risk of getting a security badge that would have allowed him unfettered access to the airport,” wrote Slawinski. “He lied because he wanted a job as a short order cook.”

Slawinski called Darnell’s case “one of the least severe crimes to be heard in federal court.”

Darnell asked to be allowed to continue treatment in Mental Health Court. Slawinski additionally asked for two years probation to allow both federal and state courts to monitor Darnell, “as he matures and becomes a productive member of society while dealing with a mental illness that needs to be treated with medication and therapy.”

On April 26, the judge sentenced Darnell to six months of home confinement and three years of probation.

Darnell told me he found a job three weeks ago and was able to pay off his school debt so he can start attending classes in the fall.

He’s said he’s determined to do well in Mental Health Court. He’s still a fighter.

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