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    Mildly retarded teen convicted in drowning of autistic child

    Charged as an adult in the death of a 5-year-old boy, the teen faces up to 15 years in prison.

    ©Associated Press
    September 26, 2002


    FORT LAUDERDALE -- Despite prosecution testimony that a judge termed unbelievable, a mildly retarded teenager was found guilty of manslaughter Wednesday in the drowning of a 5-year-old autistic boy.

    Gorman Roberts, 18, was originally charged with first-degree murder in the death of Jordan Payne, but prosecutors reduced the charge after hearing conflicting stories from two 10-year-old boys who were witnesses. The boys also gave conflicting testimony in court.

    "It's not going to bring him back, but it got him the justice he deserved," said Jordan's mother, Zola Hayes. The prosecution argued that Roberts pushed Jordan into a canal. The defense said Roberts stepped in to stop one of the 10-year-olds and Jordan from wrestling at the water's edge.

    No one went for help when Jordan, who couldn't speak or swim, landed in the neighborhood canal in Pompano Beach. His floating body was found a day after he disappeared Feb. 10.

    Defense attorney Ellis Rubin said in closing arguments that Roberts was guilty of nothing more than "being in the wrong place at the wrong time" when he tried to separate the younger boys.

    The jury deliberated less than 90 minutes. After the verdict was read, Roberts, a career special education student with an IQ of 67, said, "What? What?" Hayes broke into tears, and a sobbing cousin of Roberts' fled the room.

    Roberts, who was 17 when Jordan died, was charged as an adult and faces up to 15 years in prison. The judge revoked bail and took him into custody. Sentencing was set for Nov. 8.

    "I'm shocked, I'm stunned. I'm exasperated," said Rubin, who promised an appeal.

    In closing remarks to the jury, Assistant State Attorney Maria Schneider said Jordan died "because he got pushed in the canal and nobody got help for him. . . . Who is willing to take personal responsibility for the death of Jordan Payne?"

    The manslaughter conviction required proof that Roberts recklessly or flagrantly disregarded Jordan's safety by causing him to end up in the water and failing to get help. The defense claimed he was mentally incapable of meeting that legal standard.

    The defense rested Tuesday without calling anyone in the three-day trial. The 10-year-olds called by the prosecution contradicted each other and themselves on the stand. They had previously told numerous versions of what happened. In some versions, Roberts wasn't even at the canal.

    In the first of two taped statements to police, Roberts denied being there. Days later and under arrest, he said his back was turned when he heard Jordan splash into the water.

    With the jury out of the room late Tuesday, Circuit Judge Victor Tobin said the evidence was "hanging by a thread." Talking about one of the 10-year-olds, the judge said, "Frankly, he's just unworthy of belief."

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