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Crime

Rape case points to weaknesses in juvenile justice system

Competency rules led to dropped charges against a man now charged with the rape of a St. Petersburg jogger.

By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN
Published April 14, 2007


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ST. PETERSBURG -- He punched his stepmother in the nose and held a knife to her cheek, she told investigators.

He was accused of repeatedly raping a relative who was under 5 years old.

And he was arrested two months ago after someone said they saw him expose himself to a baby after removing her diaper.

Still, 16-year-old Jesse Knight managed to stay out of prison and wander the streets. Last week, police say Knight, who is nearly 6 feet tall and weighs 290 pounds, chased a 45-year-old jogger as she ran down Beach Drive SE on April 2 and raped her in an alley near Lassing Park.

Two days later, he was arrested after witnesses told police they saw him fondling a 5-year-old girl in a back yard.

With his criminal history, how could Knight have been free last week?

In Florida, courts can ultimately dismiss charges against juveniles who, like Knight, are found to be mentally incompetent to stand trial. Instead of being incarcerated, they often get some treatment and return to their homes.

Bruce Bartlett, the chief assistant in Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe's office, said Knight's case reveals a weakness of the system.

"It's ... an example of the inability of the juvenile system to deal with people who are mentally incapacitated," he said.

The result: A young man who many suspected was a menace could prowl the city at night with a steak knife.

Troubled past

As a child, Knight suffered from asthma and was put in programs for emotionally and mentally disabled children. He attended Hamilton-Disston, a Pinellas County School District center for severely emotionally disturbed children.

He grew up in troubled homes, according to interviews and state abuse reports obtained by the St. Petersburg Times. His father had a long criminal history and his stepmother, Tracy Knight, 36, feared him.

"I don't want to talk about my son's past," Knight told a reporter, declining to comment further.

Jesse Knight spent his childhood shuttling among various relatives after allegations of abuse, growing up in mobile home communities, motel rooms and cheap homes. By his 11th birthday, child abuse investigators had already compiled 11 reports on the family.

One report from 2001 says his father, Jesse Knight Sr., 39, beat him with a belt after he "stomped his foot and started to cry." Also, the report says his father didn't give him care for his asthma and he was "having difficulty breathing."

More accusations

Even though he wasn't even a teenager, Knight began channeling his frustration toward those around him.

In 2001, investigators examined whether he raped a boy under the age of 5 that he was living with at the time. The boy, who is not being named by the Times, would later become his stepbrother.

"Jesse has continued to sexually assault his stepbrother on a regular basis and that his (stepbrother) has become 'the perfect victim' in that he willingly allows others to abuse him," reads one intake report from Help A Child, a child abuse and treatment center.

Although authorities investigated the abuse allegations, Knight was not charged.

Knight's stepfather at the time, who is now 47, fought in court to protect his son. In 2003, a court found that Knight "has a history of violence and sexually abusing this child" in ruling that Knight's stepmother "should not allow any contact" between the two.

Knight, meanwhile, was arrested on charges of battery, aggravated battery, shoplifting and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

In the latter case, he was arrested after threatening his father with a serrated steak knife, according to a police report. The report says that Knight used a knife to frighten his father because he wanted to leave.

"I thought he'd let me go if he thought I was going to hurt him," Knight told officers.

In February, he was arrested on a lewd and lascivious charge in a case involving a 20-month-old baby girl.

Bartlett, of the State Attorney's Office, said several of the recent arrest charges, including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, were dismissed by courts because Knight was found to be mentally incompetent. Also, in some cases, family members were not cooperative.

"He has had a lot of involvement in the juvenile system," Bartlett said. "The court ended up dismissing several charges because (of his mental incompetency)."

Juveniles considered mentally incompetent have two years to be restored to competency through various programs. If a juvenile is considered unable to be restored to competency, judges dismiss the charges.

Competency decisions

Bartlett said the State Attorney's Office plans to charge Knight as an adult for armed sexual battery in the rape case; Knight also faces two lewd and lascivious charges. Bartlett said that mental competency issues would probably arise again, but that Knight's age and prior record would reduce the chances of another dismissal.

Christopher Slobogin, a professor at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law, said immaturity could play a role in competency decisions. Children under 16 are more likely to be found incompetent than those 16 years and older, Slobogin said.

In Knight's case, he was sent to several programs for treatment, but none made much difference.

"He's been arrested for felonies several times and been offered help though programs, but it doesn't appear to be helping him," said Bill Profitt, a spokesman for the St. Petersburg Police Department.

Sgt. Katy Connor-Dubina, who oversees the department's crimes against children unit, said: "It's heartbreaking that we have another case involving him."

And the father of the young boy Knight was accused of raping is outraged: "That's a crying shame that he can keep getting away with it. They should have done something a long time ago about this young man."

Times researchers Cathy Wos and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

TIME LINE: A violent past
Jesse Knight, 16, has been arrested numerous times. Here's a sampling of some recent arrests before the recent rape charge:
May 29, 2002: Aggravated battery (felony)
July 25, 2003: Shoplifting (second or subsequent offense)
Aug. 28, 2003: Shoplifting (second or subsequent offense)
Nov. 1, 2003: Battery (domestic violence)
Oct. 17, 2005: Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (felony)
Feb. 15, 2007: Lewd and lascivious behavior (felony)

[Last modified April 14, 2007, 00:58:23]


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