McClard's family questions justice

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Jonathan McClard's parents, still stunned by their son's apparent suicide in prison, are looking back, questioning the justice system. And looking ahead in hopes of changing it.

The family still hadn't gotten over the fact their then-16-year-old Jonathan McClard received the maximum sentence of 30 years for shooting another teen at a car wash in Jackson when they received a telephone call from prison officials Friday that Jonathan McClard was found dead in his cell.

The prosecutor calls McClard's shooting of Jeremy Voshage one of the most "cold-blooded" crimes in the city's history, which is why he was tried as an adult and punished so severely. But McClard's parents were worried about their son entering prison with other adults. Apparently, their fears were justified. McClard was found dead days before he was to enter the Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston, Mo. Though the investigation remains open, Jim Coplin, St. Francois County coroner, said McClard died from asphyxiation. Apparently, McClard used bed sheets fashioned as a rope to kill himself.

Jonathan McClard's family worried that his age would make him a target, said Tracy McClard, Jonathan's mother. In an interview with the Southeast Missourian a week before his death, McClard expressed concern about going to the Charleston prison, which he called "about the worst there is."

McClard, who turned 17 Jan. 1, was scheduled to arrive in Charleston on Monday morning, according to Brian Hauswirth, spokesman for the Department of Corrections. He was waiting at a transport facility in Bonne Terre before he could be moved.

Though the autopsy was handled by the St. Louis County coroner's office, Coplin responded to the scene at Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center because Bonne Terre is in St. Francois County.

Corrections officers would likely have made the rounds and checked on McClard around 3:15 p.m. Friday, and McClard's body was discovered around 35 minutes later, Coplin said.

In November, McClard received a 30-year sentence for first-degree assault from Circuit Judge David Dolan for shooting another teenager three times on July 10 at a Jackson car wash.

McClard pleaded guilty after he was certified as an adult.

The shooting, which left Jeremy Voshage, 17, seriously injured and forced to undergo physical therapy indefinitely, was one of the most premeditated, cold-blooded shootings in the history of the city, said Cape Girardeau Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle.

In a letter to the Southeast Missourian, Carol McClard, Jonathan's grandmother, said that though she knew her grandson had strayed badly from his faith, he was a "wonderful boy, and not a man, as had been alleged."

Because McClard was only 16 when the shooting occurred, a fraction of an inch and less than a year of age separated him from facing the death penalty, Swingle said.

Swingle said McClard not only lured his victim to the car wash with the intention of shooting him, but tortured him, paralyzing him with the first shot and then chambering two more rounds into the .22-caliber rifle, firing them into his victim as he lay helpless on the ground.

"Jonathan McClard made his decision, and then he committed a second horrible crime, the murdering of himself," Swingle said.

Tracy McClard said her son should not have been certified as an adult. Jonathan McClard said he shot Voshage over a dispute over a girl.

Tracy McClard said she and her husband are looking into trying to persuade lawmakers to make laws preventing anyone younger than 21 from serving time in an adult prison.

"Kids don't belong in adult prisons," she said.

She said she read that juveniles in adult prisons were five times more likely to commit suicide than those in juvenile facilities.

She said her son was placed on suicide watch twice during his time within the Department of Corrections, but that he was no longer on it at the time of his death.

Hauswirth declined to discuss whether McClard had been on suicide watch because the investigation is still ongoing, but according to Department of Corrections policy, all inmates are subject to screening for suicide risk upon entering the system.

Full suicide watch procedure involves placing the at-risk inmate in a separate cell under some form of constant surveillance and checked on at least four times each hour by staff, according to the 12-page-long policy.

In addition, an inmate would not be allowed any extra garments or furnishings that could possibly be used to harm himself, according to the policy.

Any suicide watch must be terminated by a qualified mental health professional.

Swingle stands behind the decision to prosecute Jonathan McClard as an adult. He said the juvenile system could not have rehabilitated him successfully, adding that the juvenile system is reserved for petty crimes such as shoplifting, and the seriousness of the crime is the No. 1 factor in deciding whether to certify someone as an adult.

Tracy McClard said she had hoped her son would receive a dual jurisdiction sentence, even after having been certified as an adult, sending him to the Division of Teens Services, where he would receive counseling and education, rather than the department of corrections.

While at the Northeast Correctional Center, McClard successfully completed his GED, and his parents were helping him consider his options for further education, said Tracy McClard.

He was intelligent, and his goal was to be a surgeon, she said, though after the felony conviction he had decided that was no longer a possibility and was considering psychology.

"He was going to do something great with medicine," she said.

Tracy McClard said she loved debating issues with her son for the fun of it, and that his wit never failed to make people laugh.

335-6611, extension 245

A letter from Carol McClard

Editor's note: The following is a letter submitted to the Southeast Missourian by Carol McClard, Jonathan McClard's grandmother.

To the editor:

Jonathan McClard was a Christian having accepted Jesus at an early age. He was a wonderful BOY and not a man as has been alleged. He strayed badly from God. As we all have our struggles, so did he. Because of the injustice of our legal system and some people promoting themselves instead of thinking of others, Jonathan saw no hope and saw himself going into hell on Earth. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jonathan was the third-youngest inmate being held in adult prison in MIssouri. We were hoping people in court would take the recommendation of the director of the Department of Youth Dual Jurisdiction Program who testified in court on Jonathan's behalf. Instead, he got themaximum sentence possible. Jonathan had been reading his Bible and was coming back to God. He saw a way out and a way to put himself in a much better place. He took himself directly to God where he is now. There is great comfort in that for all of his family who know God because we know we will be reunited. There is great pain and suffering now. His life has been cut short and the potential of what he could have contributed with maturity is now gone.

Carol McClard,

Jonathan McClard's grandmother.

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