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Boardman teen awaits word about release in boy's death



Published: Fri, September 30, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The state suggested the youth be released from custody, a lawyer said.

By ROGER G. SMITH

VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- A judge could decide as soon as today whether a Boardman youth has spent enough time detained for the 2003 drug overdose death of his friend.

Anthony Meranto, the lawyer for Walter R. Phibbs III, made his case Thursday in Mahoning County Juvenile Court why the 21/2 years his client has been held is penalty enough.

A therapist and a caseworker testified that sending Phibbs, 19, of Boardman, back to the Department of Youth Services would serve no useful purpose.

The family of the youth who died, Paul Graham II, 17, of Boardman, argued that Phibbs should fulfill his original four-year sentence. Graham's father, also named Paul, said freeing Phibbs would be a mistake.

"He committed an adult crime. He should do adult time. It's just wrong," he said.

Juvenile Court Judge Theresa A. Dellick said she would consider the arguments and issue a ruling as soon as today.

What happened

In February 2003, Phibbs took two morphine pills from his mother and provided them to Graham. Graham died in his home Feb. 5. The Mahoning County coroner ruled the death was caused by drug toxicity.

Phibbs and his attorney stipulated to taking the morphine pills and providing them to Graham, essentially pleading guilty to those charges. Phibbs and his attorney also agreed to forgo a trial on an involuntary manslaughter charge -- which they denied -- and instead submitted briefs arguing facts of the case.

Judge Dellick found that Phibbs committed all the offenses and sent him to juvenile detention for a minimum of four years.

Earlier this month, an appeals courts threw out all the convictions. The appeals court ruled that the judge should have directly informed Phibbs of his rights on two occasions during the proceedings but didn't.

Release advised

About the same time as the appeal was issued, the state Department of Youth Services suggested Phibbs be released from custody, Meranto said.

Phibbs had successfully completed all of the programs DYS offers and there would be little or no benefit to his remaining in custody, a DYS supervisor testified Thursday. She said he was a model citizen while detained, was a tutor and a leader in the facility.

Feels remorse

A therapist testified that Phibbs shows genuine remorse, sympathy for the family and feels terribly guilty about the death. The therapist said returning to DYS would serve no useful purpose and potentially could cause harm.

Earlier this week, Phibbs again pleaded guilty to all the charges against him -- including involuntary manslaughter -- despite Meranto's reservations.

Meranto said Graham had several drugs in his system when he died. Proving that the morphine pills Phibbs provided killed the young man would be difficult or impossible, he said. Phibbs thought he was giving his friend the medication for back pain and never intended to hurt Graham, Meranto said.

Nonetheless, Phibbs willingly pleaded guilty because he accepts responsibility for his actions and has deep remorse over Graham's death, Meranto said.

The guilty pleas were meant to bring the case to conclusion, he said.

Apologetic

In court, Phibbs apologized to both families. He said he can't imagine the pain the Graham family must endure. Phibbs said he wishes he could make things right even though that's not possible.

Meranto said that if he's released, Phibbs has family in Dayton, a job lined up and has been accepted at Wright State University.

The purpose of youth detention has been served, Meranto argued.

The Graham family, however, said Paul II's death has torn the family apart.

"Every time I hear a kid say dad I turn around," said his tearful father, Paul Graham.

Paul Graham said his son, who would have been 20 years old on Saturday, was an artist who had big plans.

His son wrote an item in a school newspaper in which he said his favorite possession was his life. His son described life as fragile, special, precious and priceless.

Graham said Phibbs deserves to be punished to the greatest extent.

The father also told Judge Dellick he didn't want her to continue presiding over the case, saying she treated Phibbs too lightly in the past.

Meranto and Assistant Prosecutor Anissa Jones, however, said they had no problem with Judge Dellick's continuing on the case.

rgsmith@vindy.com




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