URBANA — A 15-year-old Urbana boy who accidentally killed his toddler nephew while playing with a gun has been sentenced to juvenile prison.
Champaign County Judge Heidi Ladd said the teen, who fatally shot Mekhi Woods, 3, in the family home in the 900 block of East Pennsylvania Avenue last May 16, should be held for seven years or until his 21st birthday, whichever comes first.
The teen pleaded guilty in January to involuntary manslaughter, admitting that he aimed the gun at his nephew and pulled the trigger, apparently unaware the gun was loaded.
“To let him go home a fourth time sends the wrong message to him,” Ladd said, reviewing the chances the youth has had to get help and prove himself in the community since the shooting 10 months ago.
Ladd noted that the teen had engaged in alcohol abuse, frequent marijuana use, stealing, and fights at school and even while in a substance abuse program.
“Even factoring in the stress of what happened, it’s not a license to behave badly,” Ladd told the youth.
Assistant State’s Attorney Chris Kanis had sought the prison sentence for the youth, while his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Jim Kuehl, asked for probation, noting the supportive family that the boy has.
The teen apologized to the judge for “all the wrongdoing in the last year” and said he took full responsibility for his actions.
“I just want to go home and act like a normal child,” he said.
But Ladd said there was little in his behavior since the incident that showed he was on the road to rehabilitation.
“Certainly it has not been a positive adjustment,” she said, calling his demeanor in court at times totally “out of character” with his circumstances. She noted that she had observed the teen “grinning and even cheerful” during some of the many court hearings since his arrest the day of the fatal shooting.
She also took note of the youth’s statement to a probation officer that he attended counseling merely to satisfy the court system. She said she also found it “significant” that the teen got into a confrontation at a residential substance abuse treatment program with another youth that ended in both of them being thrown out.
Kuehl had told the judge that his client was not picking on the other boy.
“It was the other way around,” Kuehl said, acknowledging that there had been a fight.
Kanis pointed to a melee at the READY school in Champaign where it took three teachers to break up a fight involving the teen, resulting in one female teacher being hit. He also noted another recent incident at READY where the teen refused to walk away from a confrontation and said, “On my dead nephew’s grave, I will fight him.”
Ladd called the youth’s declaration “bravado” that showed a complete “disconnect from the reality of what’s happened here.”
Kanis also said the teen is failing three of six classes in school, got arrested for stealing alcohol, used a stick as a weapon in a fight, exhibited cruelty to animals, broke in a car and ran away from home in the months since the toddler’s death.
“A community-based sentence would not be a benefit to him,” Kanis said.
Kuehl said he grappled with his recommendation but said he has been “impressed” over the months at the support of the teen’s family, which is grieving the loss of Mekhi while trying to help the teen.
When the teen was expelled from the one program for fighting, his mother found another program that would take him the next day, Kuehl said.
“It’s a case of love the sinner and hate the sin,” said Kuehl. “Family support doesn’t guarantee success, but if it wasn’t there, it would guarantee failure.”
Kuehl said his client has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and that his irrational behavior was not a reason to send him to prison.
Ladd called the incident a “heartbreaking, tragic scenario” and said she found it “troubling” that in such a supportive family, the teen would have had access to a gun and was playing with it, a fact that had never been satisfactorily explained to her.