CLEARWATER — There was a Jeykll and Hyde quality to Thursday's court proceedings, where three 15-year-old boys pleaded guilty to beating a 13-year-old student on a school bus last month.
The boys appeared remorseful and respectful, their heads sometimes bowed.
It was all “Yes, sir” and “No, sir,” sometimes in unison, as Circuit Judge Raymond Gross painstakingly asked them a series of questions after their attorneys announced the trio would be pleading guilty in the July 10 beating.
But then Assistant State Attorney William Schopper asked that the video of the attack — the one that's gone viral and turned the Gulfport school bus assault attack into a national story — be shown before Gross decided on a punishment.
In it, one of the boys, Joshua Reddin, is seen sitting behind the victim, snarling expletives. Soon, another boy, Julian McKnight, moves from his assigned seat, toward the back of the bus, to the front, near the victim. The pair pocket their cell phones and straighten out their clothing before they and the third boy, Lloyd Khemradj, pounce on the victim.
In a horrifying 33-second segment, they are seen pummelling the boy. When the boy tries hiding under the bus seat, they kick and stomp him. The victim left $5 on the seat — a plea for them to stop — and Reddin snatched it and put it in his sock before he and the other two left through the emergency exit, leaving their victim with a broken bone in his left forearm arm and some bruises.
The bus driver called for help to break up the attack and told the attackers to leave the boy alone. He has since retired because of the assault, Schopper said.
The July 10 assault followed an incident at Lealman Intermediate School, where the teens were in summer school. McKnight tried to sell the victim marijuana, and Reddin was there, too. He refused and told school administrators, according to police. He begged school officials not to identify him, knowing there might be repercussions to his “snitching,” Schopper said.
McKnight and Reddin were summoned to the office, questioned and searched. The bus had actually started leaving the school, without McKnight and Reddin aboard, but it was stopped so they could get on and go home.
Gross, as well as some of the defendants' families, saw the video for the first time in court Thursday.
“No one can view this video without having revulsion and outrage,” the judge said. “It looks like a volcano getting ready to explode, and ultimately it does explode.”
On Thursday, each of the three teens pleaded guilty to a count of aggravated battery. In addition, Reddin pleaded guilty to a count of robbery.
Initially, the state Department of Juvenile Justice recommended nine months of probation for the three. But after again reviewing the case, including the video, the agency decided to recommend an indefinite period of supervision, Adrienne Conwell, DJJ's chief probation officer for the Tampa Bay area, told Gross.
Gross accepted the recommendation.
He also agreed to sentence Reddin to 70 hours of community service — 60 for the beating, and 10 additional hours for an unrelated disorderly conduct case. The other two have to serve 40 hours of community service.
All three also have to wear electronic monitoring devices, abide by a 7 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. curfew, submit to random drug screens, participate in anger-management sessions and stay away from each other and the victim.
Schopper, the prosecutor, also went along with the probation recommendation, but he asked that if the defendants ever wind up at the same school as the victim they be required to get themselves reassigned. Gross complied.
Gross repeatedly told the boys they were fortunate to be in the juvenile justice system instead of adult court, where they would have been facing 15 years in prison. Remarking on McKnight's small build, Gross told him what he and his friends did to the 13-year-old “would be very little” compared with what McKnight would experience in prison.
“Do you think you could even survive in prison?” Gross asked him.
Prosecutors contemplated charging the three as adults but opted not to because of their ages and lack of any serious criminal background.
Three psychologists who reviewed the boys' cases backed the state Department of Juvenile Justice. Generally, they noted the three didn't have much in the way of criminal records, so, if they were ordered into juvenile facilities, they would likely re-emerge more prone to get into more trouble.
“I do feel working with him in the community is the most appropriate way to deal with his difficulties,” said Cynthia Zarling, who examined Khemradj.
“Basically, like many adolescents, they do not always think ahead of what the consequences are,” she said. “It's easy to get caught up with the moment and not exercise very good judgement. If we can provide appropriate supervision and services, we don't have to worry about it every happening again.”
In court, all three defendants apologized, and their defense attorneys said each has sent a letter of apology to the victim and his family. The victim and his family didn't attend the court proceeding. The 13-year-old didn't want any more repercussions, Schopper said.
The defendants' families apologized, too.
“Joshua is not that person,” Reddin's mother said, after seeing the video for the first time.
“That's really not him,” McKnight's dad said. “That's not his character.”
“If someone had told me that and I had not seen that I wouldn't believe it,” said Khemradj's grandfather, who is raising the boy.