News & Features » Feature

The Victims of Victims

Anthony Wilson killed 19-month-old Semaj Rice, and he'll pay for it in prison. But who do you punish for generations of abuse and bureaucratic neglect?

by

comment

Assistant state's attorney Marie Taraska: Anthony, I talked to you earlier, and you told me about the death of Semaj Rice. . . . In the last week or two, on several occasions you struck Semaj Rice while disciplining him. A few days ago you saw Semaj sticking his hand in his diaper and you felt he needed to be disciplined, so you struck him several times in his legs and back. . . . Is that correct?

Anthony Wilson: Correct.

Taraska: I'm going to read you your rights again.

--from the videotaped statement of Anthony Wilson, taken on March 15, 2002, and played at his trial on March 15, 2004

Semaj Rice died on March 14, 2002, when he was 19 months old. The people entrusted with his care, 17-year-old Anthony Wilson and 16-year-old Vanessa (not her real name), were wards of the state who'd run away from their group home two months earlier.

The group home was the Maryville Farm Campus in Durand, a small town northwest of Rockford. Most of the residential programs for troubled youth run by the Maryville City of Youth are in or near Chicago. According to the agency's Web site, the farm campus is for youth who "require distance from city life."

Anthony was placed there in September 1999, when he was 14. "I wasn't used to seeing no cornfields and deers," he says. His mother had abandoned him when he was five, after which he'd bounced between relatives and foster homes in Chicago and west-suburban Maywood. Anthony liked the farm campus's gym and outdoor basketball court, but not the "distance from city life."

The farm campus had four dormitories, two for boys and two for girls, each housing eight to ten youths. Vanessa arrived a year after Anthony, in July 2000. She was 15 and had been turned out of a foster home. "It was a friend of mine that hooked us up," Anthony says. Some nights he climbed out of his bedroom window and sneaked into her room.

Late in December 2001 Anthony and Vanessa left the farm campus on holiday passes and didn't return. A DCFS investigation would later determine that their caseworkers made little attempt to find them.

The couple moved in with Vanessa's 50-year-old grandmother, Thomasa Brown. She lived in Cabrini-Green in a four-bedroom apartment in a 16-floor building at 534 W. Division. It was there that Anthony first met Semaj, Vanessa's toddler brother. A couple of Brown's daughters lived there as well, along with their boyfriends. Another daughter, Natalia, the mother of Vanessa and Semaj, also stayed in the apartment, but only sporadically. "She'd leave, don't come back," Anthony says. "Go out, do her thing--do drugs."

Natalia, who was 34, had been using drugs for years. "She'd smoke rock, toot blow," says Brown, who wound up caring for Semaj as a result.

Semaj was a happy, engaging child, Brown says. "If you was mad at him he would charm you by looking at you with his big ol' eyes."

But raising Semaj wasn't a responsibility Brown had sought or wanted. She had 30 grandchildren and had helped care for many of them. By the time Semaj was born she was worn down by chronic ailments--congestive heart failure, hypertension, asthma. "It's hard to take care of those little ones," she says. One-year-olds "can get into a lot of stuff. People talk about the terrible twos, I talk about the terrible ones." Semaj liked to sleep with Brown, and Brown let him because then she could be sure he wasn't wandering around the apartment getting into trouble.

Brown took to Anthony when he and Vanessa started staying in her apartment. "He was easy to get along with," she says. "He was mannerable. If I asked him to do something he would do it, no questions asked. He called me grandma just like everyone else did." And, she says, "He was crazy about Semaj."

According to Anthony, after he and Vanessa moved in, Brown quickly delegated Semaj's care to them. Brown denies this, though she allows that she sometimes asked the two teens to watch him during the day and she had him sleep with Vanessa at night instead of with her. Brown says that one night Vanessa and Semaj were sleeping in a top bunk in one of the bedrooms when Semaj rolled over Vanessa and "fell out the bed." She says she'd put pillows on the floor "because this concrete don't give" and that one of them broke his fall, so that he had only a swollen lip.

Anthony says that soon after he arrived Brown became unhappy with the situation in her apartment. "Mama ain't there taking care of her kid, aunties arguing, everything getting crazy," he says. "Too many people in the house."

It seemed clear to him that Brown wanted him and Vanessa to move, and when they heard there were abandoned apartments in the Cabrini-Green high-rise at 1230 N. Larrabee they moved into one. Semaj went with them.

Taraska: A week or two ago, were you living at an apartment that you call 1230 apartment, which is at about 1230 Burling? [Actually it was Larrabee.]

Anthony Wilson: Yes.

T: And while you were living in that vacant apartment at 1230 Burling, was there a time when you felt it was necessary to discipline Semaj?

AW: Yes.

Anthony's videotaped statement was taken at Area Three headquarters, at Belmont and Western. He was hunched over in a molded plastic chair at the far end of a table, smoking a cigarette, when assistant state's attorney Taraska began questioning him on camera. An ashtray and a can of Coke sat on the table to his left, a Raggedy Ann doll to his right. Anthony is a short, stocky, medium-complected African-American. His hair was braided, and he was wearing a black athletic jersey. The left sleeve of the jersey hid a tattoo: "Vanessa--I Love You--Tony." Taraska sat at the side of the table to his right, a pen in her hand and papers in front of her. A gray-haired Chicago police detective sat at his left, hands folded on the table.

In her opening questions Taraska asked Anthony how far he'd gone in school. He told her he'd gone to Proviso East, in Maywood, until his junior year. Actually he'd never been there, but he didn't want the police to know he'd been living at the farm campus and had run away--he was afraid they'd send him back.

Anthony told Taraska that one afternoon he and Vanessa were in the bathroom of the 1230 apartment "busting little bumps in our face"--squeezing pimples, he explained. Semaj "was standing by the sink with us, then he just wandered off by the toilet. It was some bread in the toilet. . . . Then I turned around, seen him trying to eat the bread out the toilet, and I stopped--and I popped--and I whupped him."

"And why was there bread in the toilet?" Taraska asked.

"'Cause in the vacant apartment there was no garbage cans," he said.

"When you say you whupped him, specifically tell me what you did."

"I whupped him on his leg, on the back area."

Taraska lifted the Raggedy Ann doll off the table and offered it to Anthony, asking him to demonstrate. He took the doll. "I told him to stop and he didn't," he said. "So I walked over there, and he was still digging in the toilet trying to reach for the bread and eat the bread. So I went over there, and I [said], 'Don't dig in there--that's nasty.'" He thumped the doll's butt, hard, three times with his palm.

"OK," Taraska said. "Can you hold the doll up, 'cause you're holding it under the table."

Anthony lifted the doll up. "Don't dig in there--it's nasty," he repeated, smacking the doll again.

Anthony had made his first trip to a police station 12 years earlier, in 1990, when he was five. His mother had left him and his four siblings with her sister and then disappeared. The children ranged in age from two to eight. Five days later their maternal grandmother dropped them off at a west-side police station. Anthony recalls sitting on a bench there with his brother and three sisters, wondering what was going on and what would happen next. The police called DCFS.

Anthony had been born to an 18-year-old high school dropout named Veronica, who in the late 80s began smoking crack. He was her fourth child. Their father did little to help raise them.

After police called DCFS, the kids were placed with their paternal grandmother. "From there, everything was going haywire," Anthony says. The kids were shuttled between various relatives and foster homes. In 1994 DCFS returned the kids to Veronica less than a week after she tested positive for cocaine. According to DCFS records, two months later, after she failed to get additional drug tests, the children were placed with their maternal grandmother--the same grandmother who'd left them at the police station four years earlier. Anthony says he never got the feeling she was pleased to have her grandchildren in her Maywood home or that they were there for good.

Yet for three and a half years they didn't have to move. Anthony says he enjoyed this period even though his grandmother had a temper and beat the children with hangers and extension cords. When he was 12 or 13 he got suspended from school for "telling the teachers something outrageous--you know, something sexual. Went home, faced the consequences--a beat down."

As Anthony and his siblings moved into adolescence they became more than his grandmother could handle. Anthony picked fights at school and was repeatedly suspended. When his oldest sister was 16 she was briefly confined to a mental hospital after she tried to stab the grandmother. By the following year the girl was pregnant. Anthony says the grandmother continued to beat the children, but now they resisted. "We would tell her, 'Naw, you ain't fittin' to hit me,'" Anthony says. "I think that was some of the reason she said, 'I don't want y'all no more.'" Early in 1998 the grandmother called DCFS and insisted the children be taken away.

Anthony, then 13, and two sisters were placed in a Maryville group home in Des Plaines. He didn't do well there. He tried to hit a staff member with a golf club and tried to stab another kid with a knife. He ran away repeatedly. Early in 1999 he was moved to a Maryville psychiatric facility for teen boys in Streamwood, where he was diagnosed as having major depression, an impulse-control disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Tests indicated he had an IQ of 69. That fall he was sent to the farm campus in Durand.

"Kids always feel that it's their fault, that they're being moved because they were bad," says a caseworker who was once assigned to Anthony. The caseworker, who asked not to be named, added, "If you grow up from the time you were five thinking you keep getting moved because you did something wrong, that's a heavy load. And it's worse when your own relatives put you out."

Cook County public guardian Patrick Murphy, whose agency represents wards of the state in court, thinks children who are moved from one family to the next often end up more damaged emotionally than children who are physically abused by a steady caregiver. "Whoever beat you might on some level be saying, 'I love you,'" he says. "But when you're kicked out of a home it's like saying, 'We don't even like you.'"

"In and out these placements--man, I got tired of that," Anthony says. "You get comfortable here, then you gotta leave and go back here. You keep getting older, and it keep going on."

T: Didn't you move in with a woman named Trina?

AW: Yes.

T: And who is Trina?

AW: Natalia friend.

T: Now, when you moved in with Trina, were there two times when you felt it was necessary to discipline Semaj?

AW: Yes.

The police chased the numerous squatters out of the 1230 building after Anthony, Vanessa, and Semaj had been there about a week.

They moved into another Cabrini-Green apartment, in a high-rise at 624 W. Division. Trina, a friend of Vanessa's and Semaj's mother, lived there with her three-year-old and four-year-old. Anthony told Taraska that the two children said Semaj woke them up one morning by smacking them in the face, and so he "whupped" Semaj.

Taraska asked him to demonstrate with the Raggedy Ann doll. He said he first hit Semaj on his leg. "I told him, 'Don't do that while they sleeping--that's bad,'" he said, swatting the doll. "Then he turned over, and I hit him in his back. And then he started crying." He said Semaj quieted down when he and Vanessa gave him his bottle.

Anthony told Taraska that another time in the apartment Semaj tried to open the oven door while food was cooking on the stove. He hit him five or six times on his legs and hands.

Before long, Anthony, Vanessa, and Semaj moved back in with Brown. This time they got a bedroom and a bunk bed to themselves. Anthony and Vanessa slept on the top bunk, Semaj on the bottom.

Anthony told Taraska that one day he and Vanessa were in the bunk bed and Semaj was alone in the front room. They called Semaj to the bedroom, and he came to the door. But then he "started running and laughing like it was fun and games." Vanessa told Anthony to go get him. Anthony jumped down from the top bunk, went to the front room, grabbed Semaj "in his stomach area," and took him back to the bedroom.

Taraska asked Anthony to show how he'd grabbed Semaj. The Raggedy Ann was still resting in his cupped hands, facing up. He lifted the doll with one hand and with the other smacked its stomach and clutched its shirt. Semaj "just started crying," he said, cradling the doll again. Vanessa "asked me what did I do. I told her I grabbed his shirt. . . . And then we didn't see no bruises once we looked or nothing." He idly flapped the doll's arms with his thumbs as he described how Semaj stopped crying when Vanessa held him. "She was rocking him, and he seemed fine."

Taraska asked Anthony why they checked for bruises. "'Cause normally once you hit somebody it leaves whips and marks and stuff," he said. "And I ain't--wasn't trying to hurt him."

Born on the west side in 1985, Vanessa was Natalia's first child. Natalia was 18. Vanessa's father didn't help care for her.

Natalia had a second child in 1989 and a third in '91. At birth both tested positive for cocaine exposure. The hospital notified DCFS both times. Both times, according to its records, the agency merely offered her services, which Natalia rejected.

The baby born in '91 lived seven weeks. The medical examiner's report attributed his death to dehydration. Natalia was investigated for "medical neglect and inadequate care," but was allowed to keep Vanessa and her second child.

In 1994 Natalia had another cocaine-exposed baby. Again DCFS was alerted; again Natalia refused services. A few weeks after this baby was born, Natalia left her three children with their 12-year-old aunt and was gone for four days. The infant got no formula for several days.

In 1995 Natalia, seven months pregnant, was jailed for armed robbery after she brandished a knife while stealing underwear from a store. When she went into labor two months later, she was taken from Cook County Jail to Cook County Hospital. According to DCFS records, while she was in the triage room she begged a caseworker to help her get a tubal ligation so she'd stop having children. The baby she delivered tested positive for exposure to barbituates.

During this time Natalia's other three children, Vanessa included, were staying with Brown in Cabrini-Green. DCFS placed the newborn with Brown, and Natalia went back to jail.

The four children lived with Brown for three years. Brown's own mother had been an alcoholic who'd beaten her and her siblings. "I swore I would never do that to my child," she says. Yet she also says, "These kids nowadays couldn't stand the whuppings we got, but it made a better person out of us. Some of the little kids around here [Cabrini-Green] need beat downs." She says Natalia sometimes was physically abusive to her children, but not in front of her. "She knew I would crack her head if she messed with them kids."

According to DCFS records, the children were taken from Brown in 1998 because of her "extensive drug use and failure to complete a drug program." She admits that she smoked crack until the late 90s and that she still drinks regularly. But she didn't think the children should have been taken from her, because, she says, "I was a functioning addict. I paid my bills. If I had money left over, it's mine to do what I want to do with it."

The kids were placed with a foster mother who wasn't a relative. Vanessa was 13.

A year later Vanessa accused her foster mother's boyfriend of molesting her, and the foster mother made the boyfriend move out. Later Vanessa was placed on house arrest for pulling a knife on a classmate's parent at her grammar school. She was rarely in school and failed all of her classes. In 2000 the foster mother adopted Vanessa's three siblings. DCFS records state that Vanessa wasn't adopted because of her "behavior in the home and the community." In July 2000 DCFS sent her to the Maryville Farm Campus. The foster mother moved to Virginia with Vanessa's three siblings.

A Maryville treatment plan listed Vanessa's problems as "oppositionality, explosive behavior, [and] low frustration tolerance." She needed to "learn to understand her family's problems . . . and work on resolving her anger in this area."

Natalia spent two years in prison for the 1995 armed robbery. Nine months after her release she was imprisoned again, for retail theft. The second prison term ended in October 1999. She hadn't gotten the tubal ligation she'd begged for in 1995 and got pregnant almost immediately after her release. The baby was born at Mount Sinai Hospital on the west side in July 2000--the same month 15-year-old Vanessa was sent to the farm campus. Court records show that the baby's father, James Rice, had three felony convictions and was in jail on drug charges. Natalia named the boy Semaj, which is James backward.

Semaj didn't become a ward of the state after his birth even though his father was in jail and his mother had had her parental rights terminated. No system exists to alert DCFS when a baby is born in such circumstances. The agency learns of the birth only if its child-abuse hotline gets a call. "DCFS does not have the resources to monitor everybody we've had contact with, nor should we be doing so," says Jill Manuel, DCFS deputy director of communications. "There are civil liberty issues at stake."

Hotline calls about newborns often come from hospitals when tests show a baby has been exposed to illegal drugs. Brown says that Natalia was still addicted when she had Semaj and that tests at the hospital showed he'd been exposed to drugs. "But she left the hospital with him before they found out."

One night soon after Semaj's birth, Brown says, police came to Cabrini-Green looking for Natalia and Semaj, but the two were in another high-rise and managed to elude the police. Natalia gave Semaj to a relative, who brought him to Brown. Brown didn't want Semaj to become a ward of the state and wind up in a foster home: "I didn't feel he should be punished for something she did." So she kept him.

The authorities never came looking for Semaj again. "As I look back on it, it might have been a blessing if they'd taken him," Brown says. "He'd probably still be alive today."

As for Natalia's desire for a tubal ligation, the DCFS's Manuel says, "That would not fall under our area of responsibility. Our mission is to investigate child abuse and neglect."

T: And then was there another incident . . . just a few days ago at 534 W. Division [Brown's apartment] that you felt that you needed to discipline Semaj?

AW: Yes.

T: And tell me what happened with that incident.

AW: Semaj, he was playing in his Pampers. And we told him, me and [Vanessa] told him two times, stop playing in his diaper. I told him. Then she told him. Then I told him. Then she told him. He kept on playing in his diaper. And then she was like, "Go stop him from playing in his diaper," 'cause that was nasty. . . . So I'm like, "I'm fittin' to whup him." She's like, "Why are you telling me?" And then so I jumped down from the top bunk. . . . Whupped him on his right leg. And he turned around, and I hit him on his back.

Semaj then started crying, Anthony told Taraska. But Vanessa gave him a bottle, "and he was just fine after that."

Taraska again asked Anthony to demonstrate, and he again obliged, thumping the Raggedy Ann three times with his open hand.

"You said that [when] you hit him on his leg he turned around," Taraska said. "Why did he turn around?"

"'Cause . . . it must have been hurting him."

"And after you hit him on his back a few times, a short time later did he start throwing up?" Taraska asked.

"Yes."

This was about an hour and a half later, Anthony said. He and Vanessa jumped down from the top bunk when they heard Semaj throwing up below them. He said Vanessa first hit Semaj's hand and told him to stop, because Brown had said he would sometimes throw up "on purpose for attention." But Semaj kept throwing up. Vanessa grabbed a towel and put it on Semaj's mouth "'cause he already . . . got the sheets all wet and stuff." Vanessa told Anthony to grab another towel. The vomit was leaking through the first towel and getting on Vanessa's hand.

Anthony told Taraska he started "panicking," because "when I see somebody throwing up like that it make me want to throw up." But then the vomiting stopped. It was unclear from the statement whether this incident occurred on the day Semaj died or earlier.

Taraska began asking about the night Semaj died. That evening, Anthony said, he and Vanessa changed Semaj's diaper, gave him his bottle, and put him to bed around eight or nine. He and Vanessa watched Moesha and The Jamie Foxx Show in the living room, then sat in the gallery outside the apartment. Shortly after midnight they returned to the bedroom. Anthony switched on a light and told Vanessa that it didn't sound like Semaj was breathing right. Vanessa "checked his stomach. She was like, 'He breathing right. He breathing.'" Then Anthony saw "blood and little spit bubbles" on Semaj's mouth. "And then Vanessa picked him up and ran to his grandma."

Brown remembers seeing blood around Semaj's mouth and nose and thinking he was having an asthma attack. "Talk to grandma," she says she pleaded. "Say something to grandma."

Shortly before 2 AM on March 14, 2002, a friend of hers carried Semaj downstairs and to the fire station next to the building. Paramedics there detected a faint pulse and rushed him to Children's Memorial Hospital. He was pronounced dead at 2:20 AM.

Doctors noted bruises on Semaj's forehead, chest, and abdomen. After an autopsy at the county morgue later that morning, a medical examiner told detectives Semaj's death was the result of "multiple blunt trauma."

Detectives went to Brown's apartment and started questioning the occupants. In interviews there, and later that day at Area Three headquarters at Belmont and Western, they all said they hadn't seen anyone strike Semaj.

According to police reports, Vanessa said she'd put Semaj to bed at about 9 PM the previous evening. She said she'd changed his diaper and rubbed his back until he'd fallen asleep. He hadn't shown any signs of illness. Then she'd watched TV with Anthony in the living room. Around midnight she heard Semaj crying, and she went to the bedroom and gave him a bottle, after which he seemed to go back to sleep. She and Anthony sat in the gallery outside the apartment from midnight until about 1:20 AM. When she and Anthony went to bed later that night, Anthony told her Semaj was having trouble breathing. They saw the blood and foam on his lips. In a second interview Vanessa added that during the time she and Anthony were sitting in the gallery, he'd gone into the apartment once to use the bathroom and had been inside about 15 minutes.

Vanessa told police that at the time when they realized something was wrong with Semaj, five other adults were home--Brown, Vanessa's two aunts, and their boyfriends.

Anthony was first interviewed at 10:30 PM on the day Semaj died. His story was similar to Vanessa's. He told the detectives he hadn't laid a hand on Semaj, and he agreed to take a polygraph the following day.

Anthony slept overnight in an interview room at the station. Detectives questioned him again the next morning. This time, he said he'd struck Semaj a couple of times during the previous week to discipline him but had never intended to seriously hurt him.

He was taken to another police station for the polygraph. After the examiner explained the testing procedures, Anthony admitted striking Semaj to discipline him several other times during the week before his death. Detectives decided the polygraph was no longer necessary and took him back to Area Three headquarters. He agreed to make a videotaped statement, which he gave beginning at 10 PM.

Anthony says detectives told him he'd be charged only with involuntary manslaughter, implying that he'd be freed after he spoke on camera. "They tricked me," he says.

Still, he says his videotaped account was mostly true. He had hit Semaj repeatedly. He never thought he hit him too hard, and he believed hitting was called for. "Some of the things he was doing?" he says. "You would've whupped him too."

Detectives wanted to reinterview Vanessa after Anthony made his statement, since he'd said she was there when he hit Semaj. But Vanessa apparently had told police when they'd interviewed her the day before that she was a DCFS ward, and her caseworker had been contacted. A lawyer retained by DCFS soon called the detectives and told them she wouldn't be answering any questions--she was invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself. Because Anthony had concealed that he was a runaway, DCFS wasn't alerted. Besides, at 17 he was considered an adult under Illinois criminal law.

On March 16, the day after Anthony gave his videotaped statement, detectives went to the county morgue to talk with Dr. Tae Lyong An, the medical examiner who'd performed Semaj's autopsy. Dr. An said Semaj had broken ribs, a bruised lung, and lacerations of the heart, liver, and pancreas. According to one of the detectives, Tony Jin, Dr. An also indicated that the fatal injuries were the result of one or more beatings not long before Semaj died.

Anthony was in an Area Three lockup. The detectives reinterviewed him on March 17, asking him specifically if he'd had any physical contact with Semaj on the night he died. According to a police report, this time Anthony said that when he and Vanessa put Semaj to bed that night, Semaj started to gag as if he were going to throw up. Vanessa patted the toddler on his back several times, then handed him to Anthony and told him to pat Semaj. "Anthony Wilson stated that he took the baby in his left arm and began patting him on the chest," the police report says. "Anthony then demonstrated a striking motion during which he struck approximately 10 firm, hard blows to the chest area with his right hand." Anthony said he then put Semaj back in bed with his bottle. His account of what followed was the same as he'd given before: When he and Vanessa returned to the bedroom several hours later they noticed that Semaj was having trouble breathing and that he had blood and froth around his mouth. Anthony repeated this account to assistant state's attorney Michael Yoon.

The state's attorney's office approved first-degree murder charges. Anthony was taken to the Cook County Criminal Courthouse at 26th and California. A judge set his bond at $800,000, and he was jailed.

T: Now, Anthony, when did you realize that your hitting Semaj actually caused Semaj's death?

AW: After the news reporter came to the house to interview [Vanessa] grandma and said whupping him caused his death. And then we all found out, started feeling bad, started crying.

Anthony's trial began on March 15, 2004--two years and one day after Semaj's death. No relatives of either Anthony or Semaj attended.

On the advice of his public defender, Woody Jordan, Anthony waived his right to a jury and opted to be tried by the judge, James Egan. Jordan, a public defender for 20 years, believes the beating death of a child is so disturbing that jurors are apt to convict regardless of the evidence. Judges are also susceptible to that bias, Jordan says, but less so, because they've heard so many accounts of shocking crimes.

In his opening statement prosecutor James Murphy said Anthony's admission that he'd hit Semaj repeatedly, coupled with the severity of the toddler's injuries, would prove he was guilty of murder. Jordan responded that Anthony had never used a fist when he demonstrated on the videotape how he hit Semaj and that nothing he said on the tape indicated an intent to kill.

Murphy presented three detectives who recounted their interviews with Anthony. Their testimony showed a progression in Anthony's answers, from the initial denial of any physical contact to the acknowledgment of repeated beatings. The first day of the trial concluded with the playing of the videotape for Judge Egan.

When the trial resumed a week later assistant state's attorney Yoon testified about the statement Anthony made after the one he gave on camera. "He told me that the baby, Semaj Rice, was coughing like [he] was going to throw up again," Yoon told the judge. "He said that [Vanessa] was patting the baby on the back. And he indicated to me that [Vanessa] told him to pat the baby on the baby's back. He told me that he took the baby in his left arm and with his right hand with an open hand . . . he hit the baby on his chest ten times."

Jordan called no witnesses on Anthony's behalf. He'd interviewed the other occupants of Brown's apartment and concluded that their testimony wasn't going to help. "Their line was, 'He did it--we just didn't see him do it,'" he says. He also figured that Anthony's own testimony wouldn't help his case.

In his closing argument Jordan reminded the judge of the numerous other people who were in the apartment on the night in question, suggesting that any of them could have administered the fatal beating and that therefore Anthony hadn't been proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But most of his argument was aimed at winning a conviction on the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. He contended that when Anthony hit Semaj in the chest several hours before he died, it was because he thought the toddler was choking on something or because he thought it might prevent him from throwing up.

Jordan said, "His actions may not be up to the standards that you would want of your babysitter--but he's a kid. I mean, what knowledge, what experience, what training has he had in child care? . . . There's no criminal intent, judge. You don't find a person guilty of first-degree murder because they are ignorant, inexperienced, and stupid."

In his closing argument Murphy maintained that Anthony clearly hadn't been fully honest in his videotaped statement "about how many times he hit this little boy, and where in the body he hit this little boy, and with what--meaning a fist--he hit this little boy." He went on, "We will never know how many times he hit this kid. Thank God we have the body of Semaj Rice. . . . That's what tells us how many times he hit this kid and with what force." He reminded Egan that Anthony had used the word popped at one point in the statement when describing how he'd disciplined Semaj. "We all know that popped means punched," Murphy said. "He never uses popped again, probably because he realizes that's a dangerous word. . . . But that indicates his true colors, judge. He popped that kid."

Egan began his ruling by saying, "No 17-year-old should be left in charge of a 19-month-old, but Mr. Wilson less than your average 17-year-old." Anthony had been charged on two subtly different counts. One was that he had "intentionally or knowingly" killed Semaj. The other was that he knew when he struck Semaj that his actions "created a strong probability" that he would kill him. Egan said he didn't believe Anthony had intended to kill Semaj, and he therefore acquitted him of the first count. But he said that given the difference in size between Anthony and Semaj and the extent of the injuries, Anthony must have known when he hit Semaj the way he did that there was a strong probability he'd kill the child. On that count he convicted Anthony of first-degree murder.

Anthony was stunned. Later he said he'd expected to be acquitted, though he'd prepared himself for the possibility of an involuntary manslaughter conviction. He'd barely considered the possibility of being convicted of murder.

Jordan was fuming as he left the courtroom. "That was no fucking murder," he said in the hallway, adding, "My old man spanked me worse" than what Anthony had admitted doing on the videotape. He said that if Egan had convicted Anthony of involuntary manslaughter, he probably would have gotten two years. Now he faced a minimum of 20 and a maximum of 60. Jordan said Egan likely would give Anthony something near the minimum because of his age, but that hardly mattered. "His life is over," he said. "Not that he ever had a chance in the first place."

Anthony's sentencing hearing on April 28 took five minutes. In murder cases prosecutors usually present a statement from the victim's survivors about the crime's impact on them. Semaj's survivors had opted not to provide such a statement. Defense attorneys can lobby the judge for a lighter sentence by presenting mitigation witnesses, who testify about the defendant's achievements or about the hardship his imprisonment will cause them. Jordan presented no such witnesses.

The presentence report submitted to Judge Egan by a probation officer noted that Anthony's mother, Veronica, was then in prison. Anthony had last seen her when she visited him in jail while his case was pending--before she got arrested for drug offenses. "She told me she ain't coming to see me no more, that I'm headed to the penitentiary," he recalls. "She said it like she was sad, like she didn't want to see me behind the glass. I could honor that. But then again, I'm like, 'What? You don't wanna come see me?' I thought it was funny that she ended up in the penitentiary before me."

Anthony and the lawyers stood in front of the bench for the sentencing. Murphy told Egan that a long sentence was necessary to dissuade others from such a crime. If just one person in the gallery today was deterred by Anthony's sentence, he said, it will have served its purpose. In the gallery was the usual sleepy assortment of defendants on bond and relatives of defendants in custody waiting for other cases to be called. Even from the first row of the gallery it was hard to hear what was being said at the bench, so a deterrent effect seemed unlikely.

Jordan pointed out that Anthony had no criminal record before this case, and asked Egan to give him the minimum 20 years.

Egan told Anthony he'd been "placed in charge of a child that I don't think you were capable of handling at all." He blamed Semaj's relatives for putting the toddler in Anthony's and Vanessa's care. Then he sentenced Anthony to 23 years.

"I thought that was kind of a long sentence," Detective Tony Jin said later. "I told the prosecutor--they always ask--that it wouldn't bother me if the kid [Anthony] took a light hit, because it wasn't a malicious thing. I don't think he meant to kill the baby. He thought he was disciplining him, and he just carried it too far." Jin said that when Anthony had described how he hit Semaj he didn't seem to be trying to conceal what he'd done. "It was just like he was telling me how he made a dinner."

Jin has been a homicide detective for 22 years. "In all my years handling these baby beatings--and I was in Area Four [on the west side], where people in the projects threw their babies out the window--I'd always ask, 'Why'd you do this?' And they'd say, 'Well, you know how it is when they won't stop crying.' I never had any kids, so I never knew how it was." Jin, who just turned 50, now has a two-month-old child. "You walk around with your baby, and his diaper's clean and he's been fed, but he won't stop crying," he says. He knows not to hit his child, but he says, "Now I see what they mean."

An investigation after Semaj's death by Denise Kane, inspector general for DCFS, faulted Anthony's and Vanessa's caseworkers for not working harder to locate the teens when they didn't return to the farm campus. Caseworkers are supposed to contact relatives and previous caregivers when a ward is missing. By the time Kane's investigation was completed, in December 2002, Anthony's caseworker had retired. Kane recommended that the agency discipline Vanessa's caseworker, and he was suspended for three days.

After Semaj's death DCFS placed Vanessa in a group home in Elgin. An "unusual incident" report that year described her cursing and threatening staff members in the home. Another unusual-incident report the following month said she was a month pregnant.

The father wasn't Anthony, who'd been locked up for five months by then. But like Anthony, the father was in jail.

A parenting-skills assessment done while Vanessa was pregnant noted that she said she wanted to use corporal punishment in raising her child but had agreed to comply with the rules prohibiting it in the group home she'd be living in.

In May 2003 Vanessa, then 18, gave birth to a healthy daughter. They were placed in a "transition to motherhood" home in the south suburbs for state wards and their children. A month after the baby was born Vanessa was arrested for shoplifting from a Wal-Mart.

Semaj's grandmother, Thomasa Brown, has mixed feelings about Anthony's sentence. "I think he should have gotten more time because he took a life," she says. But she'd heard from Vanessa about Anthony's own troubled childhood. "So I can't hate him for what he did. All he'd known was abuse. I feel like he's not responsible."

Anthony, who'd been uneasy living 95 miles from Chicago on the farm campus, is now 350 miles away, in the Menard Correctional Center on the banks of the Mississippi River in southwestern Illinois. "I'm trying not to think about the past," he says. "Want to look forward to the future." He hopes he'll win an appeal. He insists he didn't hit Semaj out of anger when he struck his chest ten times the night he died. "I thought it was gonna stop his coughing and all that," he says. "I thought he'd be all right. He did stop."

When he was in Cook County Jail awaiting trial he exchanged letters with Vanessa and had photos of her taped to his cell wall. He'd gaze at the photos frequently and "think of the good times." But he hasn't heard from her since he's been in Menard, and he no longer looks at the photos. He's heard about her child, but says the news didn't upset him. "She got a life of her own. She got hormones just like we do--that's the way I'm looking at it. I can't get mad at her. I can't do nothing. I'm in here."

Anthony's cell mate has told him he talks about Semaj in his sleep. Anthony says he doesn't believe it, then says he wouldn't be surprised, because he thinks about Semaj constantly--about happy moments he and Vanessa shared with the toddler, like the trip to a park they took the day before he died. He says he can still picture Semaj running around the park and having fun. When he thinks of such occasions, he says, "I sit back and just smile, just laugh." Other inmates ask him what he's laughing about. "They think I'm crazy."

He wishes he were in a prison closer to Chicago so that his relatives might come visit him. "If I could run from here I'd do it," he says with a laugh. But escapes from this maximum-security prison are unheard of. Barring a successful appeal, he'll be locked up until he's 40. Fourteen years after his mother abandoned him, Anthony finally has a stable placement.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry, Tori Marlan.

Add a comment