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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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School at an impasse
Julian Ford is presumed innocent by law. So should he be allowed on the field as the courts decide his fate?
By By JAMAL THALJI AND DAVID MURPHY
Published September 16, 2007
Julian Ford still attends team practices and games.
[Brendam Fitterer | Times (2005)]
NEW PORT RICHEY - Robert Amato said two men ambushed him the night of April 4. They broke his jaw and ripped a gold cross from his neck.
One arrest was made: Julian "JuJu" Ford, a Gulf High School football player, was charged with robbery and felony battery. Per school district policy, he was suspended from the team.
At first Ford confessed. Then he recanted, saying he was covering for some former friends. Now the 17-year-old insists he's innocent. And many - his mother, his football coach, his teammates and supporters - believe him.
But this isn't a story about whether Ford is guilty or not. It's about whether he should get to play football while waiting for the criminal justice system - which presumes his innocence - to decide his fate.
* * *
One of those responsible for deciding whether to reinstate Ford is Paul Girardi. In 20 years, Gulf High's athletic director has never faced a conundrum like this:
What if Ford misses his senior season awaiting trial, only to be later found not guilty?
What if he is allowed to play, only to be convicted of a violent felony?
"We're struggling with that," Girardi said. "We don't want to play criminals, yet we don't want to keep innocent people off the field."
If convicted, Ford could face anything from probation to prison time.
If he is found not guilty or the charges are dropped, his eligibility will be restored.
But by then, football season will be gone.
So might a shot at a college scholarship.
Ford, a 6-foot, 190-pound running back/linebacker, isn't a sure-fire Division I prospect. But football could earn him a scholarship to college, even if it is outside the NCAA's marquee level.
His mother, Sherry Smith, had him when she was just 13. Raising a child as a child wasn't easy. Football helped. He's been playing since he was 8.
"That's all he talks about: 'I want to play. I'm going to college. I'm going to be somebody,'" she said.
He still attends practices and games, watching from the sidelines. He understands why administrators won't let him play ... sort of.
"If they let me play, and this case don't go away, it's going to make the school look bad," Ford said. "I understand that part. But what if they're wrong?"
* * *
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office says they're not.
According to a sheriff's report, Ford admitted to "snatching" the cross. When asked why he hit the victim so many times, according to the report, Ford said, "It just came out."
Orville Williamson used to raise money for former Sheriff Lee Cannon. He boasts of the political connections programmed in his cell phone alone.
The 68-year-old is also a longtime youth coach who has adopted Ford's cause. He calls himself the teen's godfather.
Yes, Williamson said, Ford made incriminating statements. "But this kid is so naive," Williamson said.
Ford doesn't deny being in the area when the attack took place, Williamson said. The kid was just taking the heat for some former friends.
Williamson said he believes Ford didn't do it. If there were two attackers, he asks, why was there just one arrest? And there may not be another. The Sheriff's Office has classified the case as "cleared." Williamson said Ford once returned $1,200 a customer lost at the Tarpon Springs Panera Bread, where Ford worked. The teen even offered to take a polygraph test to prove he's innocent of the assault and robbery.
"It's not permissible in court," Williamson said. "But it's good enough for me."
* * *
This isn't the first time the law and football have intersected in Pasco County. Perhaps the highest-profile case involved Issac Johnson, the quarterback of the Pasco High School Pirates in 1992. The night before the state title game, he was arrested on an outstanding warrant of violating his probation in a robbery case.
He got out of jail the day of the game - and played. The superintendent, principal and coach all decided to let Johnson play because he had made a turnaround in school.
But now when a student-athlete is arrested, the Code of Student Conduct says he or she gets an automatic 20-day suspension from the team. Administrators can then lift the suspension based on "supporting information" from law enforcement or prosecutors.
"The decision would be easier to make, positive or negative, if we could get information from both sides of the case," said Girardi, Gulf High's athletic director.
But Girardi knows that's not possible. While Ford's case works its way through the courts, there is not much the Sheriff's Office and the State Attorney's Office can discuss with outside parties.
Whether Ford should play football is not a question for the criminal justice system, said West Pasco's top prosecutor.
"We can't get involved in that," said Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis.
* * *
Ford's supporters tried to get the system involved anyway. His lawyer asked a judge Wednesday if there was an objection to letting Ford play football.
"In fact, I encourage it," said Circuit Judge Thane Covert. But the judge said that was his personal opinion, and that he didn't know if it was appropriate for him to weigh in on the issue.
Ford's lawyer then wrote a letter to school officials relaying the judge's comments.
"It appears that a great injustice may be done to Mr. Ford by suspending him from participation in the football program during the pendency of this charge," wrote Assistant Public Defender Susan Gardner.
But playing on the football team isn't a right, said assistant superintendent Jim Davis. It's a privilege.
School officials have not lifted Ford's suspension, or even discussed what they intend to do.
No trial date has been set. And Gulf High's last regular season game is Nov. 9.
"They want somebody to guarantee he won't be guilty of this," Williamson said of the school. "But there ain't no way somebody can guarantee that."
* * *
What does the victim say?
Amato said he was left in pain and out $10,000 for medical expenses. He has no insurance.
He picked out a picture of his attacker, but Amato said the detective wasn't allowed to say if it was Ford.
Amato thinks it was - and he doesn't buy this story about him protecting someone else.
"(Ford) could have said 'I know who did it, it's a couple of friends, but I don't want to say anything,'" Amato said. "But he chose to say 'I did it.'"
Does he think Ford should be allowed to play football? Amato might be the only one who doesn't wrestle with that: