Unless proper precautions are taken, prosecutors say, the suspects arrested so far will not be safe, even behind bars.
“The escalation of violence is of ongoing concern,” Assistant State Attorney Teresa Casafranca said in court.
The court proceedings have also highlighted the ongoing debate over the best place to hold teenage accused adults before their trial: an adult prison or a juvenile facility. So far, the three boys charged with Cline’s murder – 14, 15 and 16 – have been ordered to remain in adult prison despite arguments that it would put them in a cell alone for much of the daytime.
“Anything akin to solitary confinement is, I think, horrible,” Michael Beach, Montgomery’s chief public defender, said in court. “And doing it to a minor is a hundred times worse.”
Gang activity in Montgomery County – Maryland’s most populous region – has long been made up of two broad categories: local chapters of much larger gangs, such as MS-13, and neighborhood teams concentrated in parts of Germantown, Gaithersburg and stretches of the county north of Silver Spring, according to Capt. Nicholas Picerno, commander of the police department’s Special Investigations Division.
MS-13’s influence tends to rise and fall, Picerno said, while neighborhood gangs and their factions remain more constant. According to Picerno, many of their current members are the younger relatives of former members who have aged or been arrested. And a growing concern, he added, is how quickly new members will take on rivals.
“Any potential or perceived slight may be grounds for retaliation,” Picerno said. “Something like disrespect online or a public insult might suffice.”
Two teenagers, 14 and 15, charged in fatal shooting in Montgomery County
Gang experts add that underlying social and cultural trends, exacerbated by the pandemic’s effect on young people, have pushed more towards violent activity.
“We’re meeting kids who weren’t on our radar,” said Luis Cardona, director of the county’s Street Outreach Network and administrator of Positive Youth Development in Montgomery.
In the Cline case, it is unclear what comment or incident may have sparked the animosity between the Germantown and Gaithersburg gangs. But it led to a series of non-fatal shootouts between the rivals, prosecutors say, prompting the 15-year-old suspect to warn Cline on April 20 not to enter the Fox Chapel neighborhood of Germantown.
If “my men see you, you get angry,” he reportedly wrote on Instagram. On April 22, according to police, Cline, 20, came to the neighborhood and was killed.
The next day, a member of the assailants’ gang was shot, went to the Germantown emergency center and refused to tell police what had happened, Casafranca said.
Detectives have assembled a case in Cline’s homicide, at least in part from witness statements and social media posts. On May 3 and 5, they arrested the suspects, including two brothers, who were locked up in Montgomery Adult Prison.
In subsequent district court hearings, prosecutors highlighted the teens’ writings online after the shooting. “Think ‘before you speak’ because 40 shells hurt them,” the 16-year-old reportedly wrote, an apparent reference to .40 caliber bullets.
He and his 15-year-old brother also exchanged text messages, saying the right person had been “hit” and they should stick to their story, Casafranca said.
“All I need is an iron,” the 16-year-old wrote to his brother, iron meaning handgun, according to the prosecutor.
Lawyers told the court that police believed the 14-year-old was the shooter. But the youngster’s lawyer, citing police affidavits in the case, questioned how much they could possibly know.
“There is no direct connection to my client that is associated with shooting anyone,” attorney Joseph McKenzie said.
Lawyers for the other boys also described the cases against them as weak.
“Right now there’s just a lot of speculation,” said Beach, an attorney for the 16-year-old.
He was 14 when he was charged with murder. He could be released in less than a year.
“What you have is a complaint full of innuendo,” added Mallon Synder, a lawyer for his younger brother.
Snyder acknowledged that his client may have been at the scene, but while he was there he texted his mother that he was a victim.
“Someone shoot us, come get me,” he wrote, according to Snyder.
Prosecutors described the same text message as the youngster asking his mother to send an Uber.
Family members of the teenagers who attended the court hearings declined to comment afterward. The Washington Post generally does not name minors charged with crimes until they are in circuit court. Cline’s family members could not be reached or declined to comment.
Covid has created less supervision with fewer services for children, said Jessica Zarrella, a Montgomery County defense attorney and former prosecutor.
“Children on the verge of being at risk have fallen into crime,” she said.
Cardona, the director of the Montgomery Street Outreach Network, said that even before the pandemic, more young people in Montgomery were adopting gang personas on social media to gain attention through more likes and more followers. .
“Cyber gangbanging”, as Cardona calls it, has led to violent and real encounters with other young people. Then the pandemic hit, curbing the kinds of programs — after-school sports and the Street Outreach Network, for example — that have long turned kids away from gangs. Inside the homes, many children faced increased domestic violence and tension, no longer felt safe, and began congregating outside well after midnight, he said. And, the rise of easy access to “ghost weapons” that can be assembled from parts purchased online has made it easier for young people to arm themselves.
“It’s sort of, for lack of better words, a perfect storm,” Cardona said. “Cyber-gangbang combines with access to weapons combines with instability and lack of cohesion at home. Everything had an impact.
Lately, Cardona said, his outreach workers have started to see more teenagers carrying guns who can argue — at least on the surface — a logical reason to arm themselves.
“I know I shouldn’t have this thing,” they say, according to Cardona. “But I’d rather be caught with the police than without my rivals or someone to catch me.”
Lawyers for the teenagers arrested in Cline’s murder tried unsuccessfully to have their clients released. Then they asked the judges to at least move them from the adult prison system in Montgomery to a facility for juvenile detainees within the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.
Lawyers argued that in a juvenile facility, their clients would be surrounded by other teenagers. In contrast, because adult prisons must separate juveniles from adults, adolescents would face more isolation – a condition that has only been amplified because as co-defendants they must be separated from children. each other.
“Having interaction with other human beings is essential so that people don’t experience more harm than they normally do while incarcerated,” Beach said.
He argued that the state’s juvenile facilities work with gang issues all the time and that the agency could use multiple facilities to maintain separation.
But Montgomery prosecutors, joined by three judges across five hearings, said they were more confident with the protections offered by the local adult prison system.
“The staff have incredible intelligence when it comes to these gangs, especially these Montgomery County gangs,” District Judge Sherri Koch said. “We are already talking about reprisals. And the best way to keep one of these defendants alive at this point is to keep them in a facility that has the best information.
A spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Services, Eric Solomon, declined to comment on the cases as they are pending in court. But, in general, he said, the agency follows detailed gang policies, talks to local police departments to get gang information about teens who come to its facilities, and knows how to separate young people. who may pose a danger to each other.