On Wednesday, Circuit Judge Stephanie Rothstein sentenced Illahje Davis to 10 years in prison and six years probation for reckless homicide after she drove a stolen car into Ronald Forbes, 57, as he pedaled to his job as an electrician on Milwaukee’s north side two years ago. While I am glad justice has been served, I am saddened by the series of failures in the first 13 years of this young girl’s life that led to her being behind the wheel of a stolen car speeding 80mph down a city street and purposely running down an innocent man.
Davis and another girl were in a stolen Dodge Neon, drag racing other teens in a stolen minivan down Hampton Avenue when the passenger warned Davis to watch out for “the dude on the bike” and told her to slow down. According to the criminal complaint, Davis then gave the other girl a “mad look” and seemed to intentionally hit Forbes. After the crash the girls abandoned the Neon and got into the van with the other teens and sped off. Police identified Davis and the others from fingerprints found in the van, which they abandoned later.
The Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel reports that the criminal complaint details how the teens in the other stolen car told police that after the crash, Davis laughed about hitting Forbes and said he didn’t belong in the street. That cold lack of remorse makes it a little easier to put a teenage kid behind bars, but coming on the heals of the two 12-year-old Waukesha girls who tried to stab a classmate to death, I am appalled that children so young can end up killers.
I have a daughter who is 18 and leaving for college at the end of the summer, so lately I have been looking back over her life at home and judging myself as a parent by her successes and failures. Like any parent, I certainly made my share of mistakes, but I can’t imagine the sense of complete failure the parents of all three of these young girls must feel.
As a member of a society in which kids play violent video games for “fun” and 13-year-olds are free to go on a week-long spree of stealing cars without consequences, I must admit to feeling some sense of responsibility to do something. Through our summer bike camps, our in-school safe routes classes, the Bike Fed instructors teach thousands of at-risk kids how to ride bicycles legally and safely. Our instructors also try to share how a simple bicycle ride can help the kids feel better and give them a new sense of freedom to get around on their own. We also emphasize that with that freedom comes the responsibility to obey the rules of the road.
At our Valid Bike Shop, we teach kids how to fix bikes, give job readiness training and try to mentor the teens who stay in our program at North Division High School. I know this isn’t much, but we are trying, and we do what we can.
During her sentencing hearing, the judge read from a booklet Davis made for the Forbes family. The judge read a poem included in it — and it was filled with remorse. Before she was sentenced, Davis, now 15, spoke in court and seemed to have developed a genuine sense of remorse. “I know what happened was awful, but I’m very sorry. I think about this every day. It’s hard for me to go to sleep some nights. I pray about it and I just ask for forgiveness. Everything happens for a reason. I really don’t know this reason,” Davis said.
I hope the stiff sentence Davis will serve gives the family and friends of Ronald Forbes a sense of closure and justice. I also hope Davis gets the help she clearly needs while she is in custody, and she can turn her life around. There is no easy answer to the reason Davis is searching for or to what we can do so other children don’t end up in the same situation, but it can only help if we ask the question and each of us tries to do something.