Today, 24-year-old Derrick Lemon was sentenced to 71 years in jail for a 2006 murder, Kim Janssen of the Sun-Times reports. He was once a central figure in a murder that galvanized not only Chicago, but the nation: the murder of his five-year-old brother, who was dropped from a window in the Ida B. Wells housing project in October of 1994 by a ten-year-old and an 11-year-old.
The death of Eric Morse was followed by the Illinois legislature lowering the age at which a youth could be sent to juvenile prison (previously, it had been 13), the takeover of the CHA by the federal government, and an ongoing discussion about young “super-predators.”
Meanwhile Lemon, who testified at the assailants’ trial and again during a 2001 lawsuit against the CHA, slipped through the cracks. Here’s what happened.
“Five-year-old Eric Morse was dangled outside a 14th-floor window and dropped to his death because he was doing the right thing: refusing to steal candy from a store, authorities said Friday.” (10/15/1994)
“But the two boys were not the only ones with troubled family histories. Eric had contact with state child-welfare authorities when he was born in 1989 with heroin in his system, according to sources.” (10/16/1994)
”JONES: Little brother, huh? Another thing, Ms. Morse. How do you think Derrick’s life’s changed since the incident?
“MORSE: He do a lot of fighting now, something he ain’t never did. Tell him you rebellious. You like to fight people now.
“LEMON: Fight. Throw crayons.” (Remorse: The 14 Stories of Eric Morse)
“A mental health expert has determined that a 10-year-old boy named in a delinquency petition for dropping 5-year-old Eric Morse to his death from a Chicago Housing Authority high-rise is unfit to stand trial in part because of his low IQ.” (1/18/1995)
“In one of the most wrenching moments of the trial, Derrick recounted that he ran down the stairs in the hope that he could ‘catch’ his brother before he hit the ground. ‘I ran downstairs,’ Derrick said in a firm, steady voice. ‘I tried to catch him.’” (10/18/1995)
“Six days before Christmas and more than a year after Eric Morse dropped to his death from a 14th-floor window, the two boys who killed him could become the youngest children ever sent to an Illinois juvenile prison.” (12/10/1995)
“The two boys, found delinquent, or guilty, of killing Eric Morse by dropping him out of a Chicago Housing Authority building in October 1994, are the first defendants to be judged under a new law that allows children as young as 10 years old to be sent to a youth prison.” (1/23/1996)
“The boys have low IQs and most psychological evaluations describe them as aggressive, impulsive and sometimes violent, but none of the reports recommends sending them to prison, according to defense attorneys.” (1/26/1996)
“The younger boy, now 12, will be locked in a cell in a cramped, darkened wing of the prison infirmary. The cell is reserved for a half-dozen inmates who are sick, suicidal or chronic troublemakers. Guards will check his cell frequently.” (2/1/1996)
“Certainly in reconstructing the boys’ lives, experts will look at the spring of 1993, when two events seem to have sent them spinning out of control. And they are events that may, in the long run, have been more pivotal than the beatings they witnessed and were subjected to or the sight, in Antoine’s case, of his parents stretched out on an old sofa in the evenings smoking crack cocaine.
“That was when both families were forced to move out of their apartments–because of CHA renovation–and both fathers were imprisoned.” (3/17/1996)
“In addition to counseling sessions, Antoine and Tony attend special educational classes five times a week that concentrate on basic reading, spelling, mathematics and communication and living skills, including learning how to count change and read basic instructions. Tony has an IQ of about 76. Antoine was previously evaluated with an IQ of 57, but Weidel said prison officials now think it is higher.
“‘We don’t think that he is borderline mentally retarded,’ she said. ‘His lack of socialization and education has given him low test scores. He’s more intelligent than he tests.’” (3/19/1996)
“In the wake of Eric’s death, Derrick was placed at the Hephzibah Children’s Association’s facility in Oak Park for children with domestic or emotional difficulties. But Morse visited him there only once, speaking little and acting as though she were angry, a DCFS report says. She left after 20 minutes.” (10/12/1997)
“Since Eric’s murder, Derrick, now 14, has all but dropped out of school, abandoned his latest foster home, and had at least one run-in with the law, while Toni Morse has continued battling drug addiction and depression.” (4/15/2001)
“The Morse family’s attorneys are trying to show jurors that Derrick’s problems stem directly from that incident, but lawyers for the CHA and the other defendants argue that his difficulties predate it.” (5/25/2001)
“Lawyers for the Morse family called Toni Morse to testify in an effort to show jurors she is a caring mother who has suffered greatly since her son’s death.” (5/30/2001)
“In the lawsuit, Morse family attorneys charge the housing agency and the companies are responsible for Eric’s death because they knew serious crimes were being committed in vacant apartments, yet they failed to take steps to stop them.” (6/1/2001)
“The attorney, Elizabeth Knight, turned the art analogy back on the plantiffs, arguing the blame for Eric’s death belonged in part to his mother who has a history of drug abuse and was not supervising her children on the day of the murder.” (6/8/2001)
“Lemon is living off more than $1 million he received in a lawsuit settlement from the Chicago Housing Authority and a private management company for Eric’s death.
“A high school dropout, he often sleeps until noon and spends his afternoons watching ESPN or action movies before going out at night. He has spent time in prison on weapons and burglary convictions and a parole violation. He is unmarried and has a 2-year-old son.” (5/24/2009)
“The judge said that, if not for that childhood trauma, he would have hit Lemon with an even longer sentence.” (4/4/2011)
Related: Children On Trial: At juvenile court, an ongoing struggle to mend broken lives, Louise Kiernan, 1/19/1997
Photograph: Chicago Tribune