A Minor Affair

When young love ended in a rape allegation, the juvenile justice system left a Dallas teen's life in limbo.

Sheldon Pearl is edgy.
As the new school year draws near, the East Dallas teen-ager can't seem to shake the anxiety that knots his neck muscles and clutches at his stomach. He tried to keep calm during the summer, spending several weeks, as he has in the past, looking after his brain-damaged 7-year-old cousin who is confined to a wheelchair. But he really only found peace when he left Dallas behind--for a week at Christian Youth Fellowship camp, a long weekend at his family's annual reunion, and the few days he hied down to Houston to visit some relatives.

Now school is less than two weeks away, and he has a recurring fear that when he walks down the crowded halls of Skyline High School, a uniformed, gun-toting Dallas police officer will arrest and handcuff him.

Just like last fall.
Last November, when Sheldon was 14, his ex-girlfriend accused him of raping her. The case languished in the juvenile justice system for the next seven months, although even a cursory look at the facts show that this was very likely a false accusation made by an emotionally troubled young girl.

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The girl made the allegation almost a week after she claimed the rape occurred--to police officers who were arresting her for assaulting her 69-year-old grandmother. It was the sixth time in two months the girl had been reported to the authorities for violent behavior. Even though the girl gave conflicting stories about the alleged rape, told people she was seeking revenge against her former boyfriend, and at one point, early on, even agreed to drop the charges, prosecutors refused to let the case go. Instead, the case dragged on through the entire school year, with each visit to court or the lawyer's office giving Sheldon headaches and stomach pains for days.

Finally in late June, just three weeks before trial, the district attorney suddenly, without explanation, decided to dismiss the case.

Still, Sheldon cannot rejoice or even relax. The District Attorney's Office dismissed the case in a way that would allow prosecutors to refile it anytime in the next four years, if they see fit. The District Attorney's Office has refused to return phone calls from Sheldon's parents or his court-appointed attorney, so Sheldon has no way of knowing if he'll meet a police officer outside his classroom door.

For as long as he remains in this state of legal limbo, Sheldon Pearl will continue to suffer jangled nerves. And as a new school year begins, he will be looking over his shoulder.

Children seem to be growing up ever faster and harder. The average age at which teens begin engaging in sexual activity keeps declining, while their participation in violent crime--rape, assault, and murder--soars, making it the only category of crime that actually is increasing in this country, according to FBI statistics.

Getting tough on teen crime has been, in recent years, the rallying cry of politicians and legislators nationwide. George W. Bush made it the centerpiece of his campaign for governor; the Texas Legislature devoted much of its time during the past session to overhauling the juvenile justice system, including stiffening penalties and reducing the age at which youthful offenders could be tried as adults.

The get-tough-on-kids trend is a reaction to a judicial system that some critics say coddles violent, if young, criminals.

Between the children and the hard-liners is the juvenile justice system. Just as the teen-age years exist in a kind of nether world--no longer children, not yet adults--the juvenile justice system has always been an awkward hybrid, a cross between punishment and social work, where the emphasis is supposed to be on rehabilitation. Second chances and redemption are what this system has traditionally been about, which is why the names of all but the most violent youthful offenders who are tried as adults are kept from the public. Juvenile offenders' records are sealed and their criminal slate is wiped clean when they hit 17 and enter what the state defines as adulthood.

The system afforded Sheldon Pearl and his ex-girlfriend this anonymity. His ex-girlfriend, who we'll call Rhonda, declined to talk to the Dallas Observer. Her father, who still maintains that Sheldon abused and raped his daughter, refused to discuss the case in detail. "My daughter's through with it," he says. "She wants it to be finished."

But Sheldon, with the blessing of his parents, decided to forsake his anonymity in telling his story. After being arrested in school and dragged through the system, he has nothing to hide, he and his parents say. Moreover, they complain the secrecy in the name of protection that shrouds the juvenile justice system too often hides its flaws--flaws that injured Sheldon and cast a shadow on his future.

Because their son is a juvenile, the Pearls say, the authorities had a special responsibility to make sure that the serious charges leveled against him had merit before they arrested him in the school hallway in front of his classmates. Being an anonymous juvenile, they say, didn't protect Sheldon from the District Attorney's Office's misguided pursuit of the case for more than six months before it abruptly shut it down without any real resolution. In this case, the juvenile system protected from scrutiny only its own shortcomings.

"This was a young girl who clearly needed emotional help," says Lynell Pearl, Sheldon's mother. But all the system did, she says, was help her perpetuate a devastating lie that left her son emotionally scarred.

Sheldon and Rhonda were eighth graders at John B. Hood Middle School and just barely 14 when they decided to become boyfriend and girlfriend. At the beginning, dating consisted of being driven by their parents to school dances, movies, and coed parties or hanging out at Sheldon's house, where they watched TV or found a private moment to make out.

They made a handsome couple, and both could pass for high schoolers. Sheldon was almost 6 feet tall and muscular, the captain of the school football team and a stellar player on the basketball team. A solid student, Sheldon was voted Mustang of the Year at Hood last year, an honor that teachers, coaches, and the principal bestow on the basis of character and leadership as well as academic and athletic prowess.

Rhonda was beautiful and athletic, too. A good student, she was small and slender, with deep-set eyes and an engaging smile, which belied a difficult life. Her mother was young and unwed when Rhonda was born. Their relationship had always been tumultuous, but during the last year and a half it had gotten particularly strained after her mother's boyfriend moved into their apartment. Rhonda's father, who lived in Oak Cliff, remained involved in Rhonda's life even after he married and started another family. Rhonda also had a doting grandmother in South Dallas with whom she sought refuge when she fought with her mother, according to the Pearls and Rhonda's statements to authorities.

If Rhonda's home life was chaotic, Sheldon's was nearly a polar opposite. Sheron and Lynell Pearl were high-school sweethearts from Homer, Louisiana. Married for almost 25 years, they have worked hard to give more opportunities than they had to their three children--24-year-old Sheronni, 18-year-old Shereece, and Sheldon. The Pearls live in a handsome red-brick house on a quiet tree-lined street in southeast Dallas not far from Rhonda's mother's apartment. Sheron has worked as a trucker for Texas Instruments for the past 25 years. In January, Lynell will celebrate 25 years with Southwestern Bell, where she is a computer attendant. Lynell leaves work by 2:30 every afternoon so she can be home for her children or attend their games. She served as PTA president at her children's elementary and middle schools and volunteers as a tutor.

From the beginning, Lynell Pearl thought Rhonda and Sheldon's relationship was too serious for their age and that they were spending far too much time together. Still, she made Rhonda feel comfortable in her home. The Pearls even took her with them to church, where Sheldon served as president of the youth group. "I would take her with me to some of my meetings so she would not have to be left at my house alone with Sheldon," Lynell recalls.

In the spring of their eighth-grade year, Sheldon and Rhonda began talking about having sex. Finally, one afternoon while Sheldon's parents watched TV in the downstairs den, he and Rhonda decided they were ready. Early in their sexual relationship, Rhonda cried on one occasion after they had sex. "I started crying also, just because we knew we were wrong," Sheldon wrote in a letter to his attorney. "We talked about it, and it seems that we loved to be together at all times."

During the summer, Rhonda became increasingly possessive. "She would get mad when I didn't come over to her house," Sheldon wrote in the letter to his attorney. "She expected us to talk every day--all day, all night. It got to the point to where we were arguing and by having sex we would get over it a while."

Last August, as Sheldon and Rhonda entered their freshman year at Skyline High, they were still deeply involved. The couple would have an early morning tryst, then head off to school, where they were invariably late. At about that time, Rhonda asked Sheldon to stop using condoms, and he readily agreed. "The times I didn't use a condom, I took it out at the right time," he wrote.

At school, things seemed to be going Sheldon's way. He made the freshman football team easily, and before long was asked to join the varsity team--a coup for a freshman. And while ninth-grade girls often snub their male classmates in favor of upperclassmen, Rhonda remained crazy about Sheldon. Sometimes desperately so. As the year progressed, their romance started to hurt their grades--a clear danger sign in the Pearl home.

Lynell Pearl could tell by the arguing and sniping during their phone calls that the relationship was fraying. She lectured them that they were too serious and involved for their age. She admonished Rhonda to stop chasing after her son, specifically to quit waiting for him until the end of football practice to walk him home from school. "I told her she needed to be home doing her homework," Lynell says.

In early October, Rhonda's possessiveness gave way to rage. When she spied Sheldon giving a hug to a female friend, she angrily confronted Sheldon and in the process grabbed his shirt and tore it, says Sheldon. When he tried to end the relationship right there, she tearfully apologized. A short while later, Rhonda got into a fight with the girl. The police cited both girls for disorderly conduct, according to the police offense report and municipal court records.

Rhonda was automatically suspended from Skyline in accordance with the Dallas Independent School District's new zero-tolerance discipline policy. She never returned. She left her mother's house and moved in with her grandmother in South Dallas and transferred to Lincoln High School.

In mid-October, shortly after Rhonda's 15th birthday, she and Sheldon found themselves in big trouble.

Rhonda told Sheldon she was pregnant. Their horrified parents decided to meet and discuss a course of action. With Rhonda and Sheldon present, the two sets of parents decided that the best option was for Rhonda to get an abortion, the cost of which the parents agreed to share. "We also got strict lectures from all sides," Sheldon recalls.

A short while later, Rhonda had the abortion, an ordeal that further undermined her fragile emotional state. During the next four to six weeks, Rhonda grew more and more distraught, violently lashing out at Sheldon and family members, according to police reports.

On October 28, while his mother was in Louisiana visiting family and his father was at work, Sheldon got into an argument with Rhonda on the phone that she carried over to the Pearls' front lawn. Sheldon says Rhonda threatened to kill him with a knife and rang his doorbell incessantly. When Sheldon's father came home, he yelled at Rhonda to get away from his house, and she took off running into the night.

On November 14, at 8 p.m., Rhonda called the police to report a fight she was having with one of her relatives at her grandmother's house in South Dallas. The police arrived to find her "highly emotional and upset over problems with...family members," according to the police report. Rhonda told police she recently had an abortion, had been rejected by her mother, and was the object of "constant put-downs" by family members. The police officer called to the scene tried to have Rhonda placed in a shelter, but she refused.

The following weekend, November 17 and 18, Rhonda tried to return to her mother's apartment, but her mother had changed the locks and the apartment's manager would not let her in. Rhonda walked to Sheldon's house, but no one was home; the Pearls were visiting in Louisiana again. Rhonda wound up at the home of Mary Haywood, a neighbor of the Pearls and an elementary school principal who had been a confidante to both Sheldon and Rhonda during their rocky relationship. Rhonda stayed the weekend with Haywood. Haywood says she tried to console Rhonda, who was upset with her mother and with Sheldon, who had been trying to end the relationship. "I told her she was young and would find love again," Haywood says.

Rhonda's grandmother picked up Rhonda Sunday night and took her to the grandmother's home. Just after midnight on Tuesday, November 21, Rhonda got into a heated argument with her grandmother. The grandmother told police Rhonda hit her in the head with her fist, according to a report filed by a police officer who was called to the scene. The grandmother told the officer that Rhonda "has been violent recently and is having personal problems." The police left Rhonda in the custody of her uncle, who lived down the street from the grandmother.

That evening, Rhonda called Sheldon and finally agreed to stop seeing him. She said she would come over so they could exchange some things they had given each other. It didn't take long before the situation badly deteriorated. Sheldon says Rhonda began ripping up pictures and throwing things. Sheldon's parents were out, so he called Mary Haywood to come over and try to calm down Rhonda.

"When I got there, the young lady was beating on him," Haywood recalls. "She was tearing things up. I said, 'Baby, why are you doing this? This isn't your property.' But she didn't care. She said she was going to get him back."

Haywood quieted down Rhonda and Sheldon and left. But when Sheldon's father got home, Sheldon told Rhonda she had to leave.

To finish talking with Rhonda, Sheldon followed her to Haywood's house, but only wound up in another ugly fight. "It was like hand-to-hand combat," says Haywood's son, Wayne. Sheldon says Rhonda pushed him onto a bed and began swinging at him. "She swung at me again and hit me in the face," Sheldon recalls. "I swung back and hit her on the cheek."

Sheldon ran out the back door while "Rhonda ran through the kitchen and opened a drawer and pulled out a butcher knife," says Mary Haywood. "I tried to restrain her. She broke away and ran out the front door with the knife, and I called the police."

When the police arrived, Rhonda was gone. She had run over to Sheldon's house and began screaming and banging on the windows. Sheldon called the police to report the disturbance and that his ex-girlfriend had punched him in the face. Meanwhile, his father was at the front door.

"She had a wooden stake in her hand, and I told her if she threw it I was going to whup her ass," says Sheron Pearl. "She cursed and patted her ass at me. I told her she better get off my property before I hurt her."

Rhonda finally left, only to return a little while later with a car full of guys. Later, the Pearls say, Rhonda made harassing phone calls to them, taunting them with threats.

When Rhonda finally returned to her grandmother's in the early morning hours, she, too, put a call in to the police. Rhonda told one of the responding officers that her boyfriend had hit her in the eye earlier in the evening after she told him she thought she was pregnant. The officer noted that he did not see any damage to her. Rhonda also told the officer that her boyfriend's father came out and pushed her down and wrestled her to the ground.

The Pearls did not know about the complaints Rhonda had lodged with the police against Sheldon and his father. And, as they prepared for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, the Pearls were thankful they had finally heard the last of Rhonda.

At 11 a.m. on Thanksgiving, Rhonda grabbed the keys out of her grandmother's pocket and took off in the grandmother's car for the next hour and a half. When Rhonda returned, her grandmother confronted her. Rhonda flew into a rage and pushed her grandmother, then bit her on her left leg. As Rhonda's older cousin restrained Rhonda, the grandmother called the police. After noting the teeth marks on the grandmother's leg, the police arrested Rhonda for misdemeanor assault and vehicular theft, a felony, then headed off toward the new Henry Wade Juvenile Detention Center off Interstate 30, according to the police report.

On the way, Rhonda was screaming and crying. Officer Regina Herbert asked her why she was so distraught.

"You don't know what I've been through," Rhonda responded, according to Herbert's report. The teen proceeded to tell the officer that she had been repeatedly sexually assaulted. The last incident, she said, occurred two days before (on the night of her fight with Sheldon) and no one believed her. Then Rhonda showed the police officer her swollen cheek and said it happened while she was being raped. Rhonda refused to give the name of her assailant. She said she feared retaliation.

"[Rhonda] refused to go into detail regarding the assault," wrote officer Herbert, "but it is very clear to reporting officer's[sic] that the complainant is very afraid and upset over this. Reporting officer's believed that the incident did occur, because the complainant began crying every time she mentioned the offense...[She] states that she may be pregnant by the suspect."

Because of juvenile justice confidentiality, it is unclear whether the police ever took Rhonda to the juvenile detention center or whether they were so swayed by her story that they simply changed gears and pursued her allegation. That day, Rhonda's father and her grandmother were called into the station and asked whether they had any idea who the assailant could be. According to the police report, they gave the name of Rhonda's cousin with whom they said she had trouble in the past.

During the next week, Rhonda tried to contact Sheldon. Sheldon's mother warned him not to talk to and to stay away from Rhonda completely. "This is a 'fatal attraction' case," Mrs. Pearl told him. When Sheldon refused to talk to Rhonda on the phone, she began making nonstop hang-up calls, so many, in fact, the Pearls say they were forced to get caller I.D. and then to block several numbers from which Rhonda was calling.

A week after Rhonda first told police about the alleged rape, child abuse detectives interviewed her at the Dallas Child Advocacy Center, a consortium of professionals--police, therapists, doctors--collected under one roof in order to ease the potential trauma children often undergo when reporting abuse. This time Rhonda named names. She said that on November 18 at 1 a.m. in the home of Mary Haywood, she and her boyfriend were having an argument. "During the argument, suspect Pearl stated to [Rhonda], 'Let's fuck,'" according to the police report. "[Rhonda] replied, "No, you know I can't for three weeks because of the abortion I just had.' Suspect Pearl then told [Rhonda] he was going to have sex with her and hit her in the face with a closed fist, knocking her onto the bed in the room." Then he had sex with her without her consent, the report concludes.

Rhonda's father says he believes Rhonda was telling the officers the truth, though she may have confused details. He says that his daughter had had consensual sex with Sheldon Pearl, but the rape was the end of an abusive relationship. "He [Sheldon Pearl] abused my daughter mentally and physically," her father says. "He was known to have hit her several times."

The father says Rhonda didn't report the abuse earlier because she was in love with Sheldon and was afraid of what her father might do if he found out.

But police records contain important discrepancies in Rhonda's story. Just a week and a half earlier, Rhonda had reported to police that Sheldon hit her because she told him she thought she was pregnant--but she didn't mention anything about rape. Now she was telling police that Sheldon hit her and raped her after she told him she couldn't have sex because of her recent abortion. And this time, she said the date it happened was November 18--a weekend when Sheldon was not even in Texas.

Rhonda's credibility with police apparently wasn't diminished by her giving the rape story en route to being locked up on a report of criminal behavior. Nor did the police bother to question elementary school principal Mary Haywood, the owner of the house where the rape allegedly occurred. Had they asked, Haywood would have told them: "It did not happen. I was there the whole time. This is a troubled young lady who was hellbent on destroying this boy's life out of revenge."

Rhonda's father argues that Haywood would naturally side with the Pearls as they are longtime friends. "I believe my daughter," he says. "She was afraid of this guy but she had a teen-age kind of love with him."

Apparently the two officers were also convinced, for they immediately set out to arrest Sheldon. They could have waited until he came home; or even have his parents bring him in for questioning, which is frequently done in juvenile cases, according to lawyer Larry Rayford, a former Dallas assistant district attorney who has handled numerous juvenile cases since going into private practice.

Instead, the police drove directly to Skyline High School. They arrived at 9:30 a.m. and asked some students in what class Sheldon was. One of the officers went into the classroom and asked Sheldon to step outside where they arrested him. Sheldon says he had no idea why he was being arrested. When the police told him sexual assault, a second-degree felony, he was stunned.

"I was nervous," says Sheldon. "Not about the crime, because I know I hadn't done it. But I was scared they would believe her because she's bright and attractive-looking. And a really good actress."

The officers walked him to the school security office, where they handcuffed him. Then they took him to police headquarters downtown and kept him handcuffed to a bench until his father arrived to get him.

Even after Rhonda had accused Sheldon of raping her, she still tried to contact him. She kept calling and writing letters. Her return address now was the East Dallas unit of the Timberlawn Mental Health System. Rhonda had voluntarily committed herself after she tried to attack her father with a knife.

"Believe it or not, we were happy she was finally getting the help she needed," says Mrs. Pearl.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Rhonda had gone to live with her father, because both her grandmother and mother were tired of her temper and violent ways. On November 29, according to a police report, Rhonda missed the school bus and decided to walk instead. Her father insisted he drive her, and a violent argument ensued. Rhonda grabbed two knives and scraped them along the side of his car and threatened to cut him if he came near her. Her father called the police. When the police arrived, Rhonda put the knives up to her throat and threatened to kill herself, officers reported.

Although he declined to talk in detail about Rhonda's emotional problems or counseling, her father says her behavior problems were a result of the mental abuse to which Sheldon subjected her. "She was straight," he says. "Her problems began when she started seeing him."

The police took her to the psychiatric wing of Parkland Memorial Hospital. She told doctors there that she had been "beaten up by her ex-boyfriend and raped by her cousin," according to her medical records. "She said she got pregnant to get back at her mother, who kicked her out when she got a new boyfriend and didn't have time for her. She says that she can't control her anger. She wants to get revenge on her boyfriend and she is tired of living. If she can get revenge on her ex-boyfriend, she doesn't think she will need to commit suicide."

It was the next day, November 30, when Rhonda told police that it was Sheldon Pearl who had raped her. As the police sped over to Skyline to arrest Sheldon, Rhonda checked into Timberlawn. There she told counselors a different story than she had told the police.

She reiterated that she was very angry at her boyfriend for hitting her and breaking up with her the previous weekend. She then told the therapists that she recently had been raped by her cousin. Rhonda repeated the allegation against her cousin during a later therapy session attended by her father, according to medical records.

"She wasn't raped," her father told the counselor. "[Her cousin] put his hands on her and dropped his pants, but she got away."

Sheldon's first court date was set for mid-February, a full two and a half months after his arrest. In the courtroom of Judge Hal Gaither, who presides over juvenile and family law cases, the charges against Sheldon were announced to the court by Assistant District Attorney Mike Ramirez. Gaither gave the Pearls the name of Linda Hack, who was to be their court-appointed attorney.

Middle-age and twice divorced, Linda Hack works and lives in a funky storefront apartment on the eastern end of Deep Ellum. A shingle that rests on the barred front window reads: "HERLAW, help, education, review, legal assistance worldwide."

Hack, who has worked as an administrative law judge and says she helped pioneer the area of mediation in Dallas, fancies herself a "professional neutral and a white-hat attorney--you know, like a John Wayne cowboy," she says. And Hack wears a hat--not necessarily a white one--whenever she enters a courtroom.

Hack decided to become a lawyer after she was raped in her home in Chicago by a man who would go on to murder his next rape victim. The trial was an ugly ordeal for Hack, who decided the system needed to change. Ironically, after law school she assiduously avoided the field of criminal law because she did not think she could ever represent a client she knew was guilty of a violent crime.

When Gaither's court informed Hack she had been appointed to represent a juvenile accused of sexual assault, she wanted to withdraw from the case. Not only did it involve alleged violence against a female, but Hack admits she knows little about criminal law, especially as it applies to minors. But before Hack got a chance to withdraw, Lynell Pearl contacted her and poured out her desperate story.

"After we talked, I knew I had to take this case," Hack says. "The white hat in me came out after Mrs. Pearl convinced me Sheldon could not have done it. Everything she said was corroborated by Miss Haywood, who was a model of propriety and a very credible witness. I met Sheldon and he seemed honest and sincere. Everything seemed to fit. Then we figured out that the date the arrest report claimed the rape occurred, Sheldon wasn't even in town. (The charges against Sheldon would eventually read: "on or around November 18, 1995.")

"I figured I could just make the case go away quickly," says Hack.
Both families were summoned at the end of February to court for what they thought was another hearing in the rape case. But this hearing was in municipal court to set a trial date for the assault charges Rhonda filed against Sheldon and his father, and the assault charge they filed against her.

Prior to the hearing, the Pearls and Rhonda's father had met to try to work things out. Rhonda's father said he was upset that Sheldon had hit his daughter and the Pearls agreed that Sheldon was wrong. But they all decided that to go to trial on any of the charges would be detrimental to their children. Rhonda's father told the Observer that while she still maintains she'd been raped, his daughter didn't want to "put the boy in jail."

Sheldon and Rhonda arrived at court with signed statements saying they had agreed to drop charges against one another: Sheldon's assault charge against Rhonda, and her rape charge against him. Unfortunately, this was not proper procedure and, as far as the sexual assault case, it wasn't even the right court.

Hack had Rhonda's father call Assistant District Attorney Ramirez and inform Ramirez he and Rhonda wanted to drop the charges. She also had Haywood call and tell Ramirez that a sexual assault never occurred at her home. Hack says Ramirez thanked them and hung up.

At the pretrial hearing on the sexual assault case--held in mid-March in front of a juvenile court master who substitutes for the judge on smaller judicial matters--Rhonda's father informed Assistant District Attorney Chuck Miller, who was covering for Ramirez, that he and his daughter wanted to drop the charges. The district attorney took Rhonda aside to talk. When he returned, he said he refused to drop the charges because Rhonda maintained in his meeting with him that she had been raped.

Rhonda's father got so furious he almost had to be restrained by the court bailiff, according to Hack and the Pearls. He shouted that he would never return to court, that he could see what they were up to. "They just want to railroad another black boy and put him away," he yelled.

True to his word, neither he nor Rhonda ever showed up in court again. Sheldon, on the other hand, attended every hearing. "If he went to court on a Wednesday, we'd be at the doctor on Thursday," says Mrs. Pearl. "His head would hurt or his stomach."

Despite Hack's best efforts, the case looked like it was going to trial, and she decided to consult with an associate who had experience in criminal law, though he knew little about juvenile law. Hack bought some textbooks on criminal law and dove headlong into preparing for the case, set for trial in July.

Hack says she on several occasions tried to get information from the district attorney--medical records, witness lists--that would help her prepare an adequate defense. Except for some police reports, Ramirez gave her nothing, she says. The court file in which he was supposed to enter any information he was going to use in the prosecution remained empty, she says. Hack filed a motion to take a videotaped deposition of Rhonda--something she believed could be crucial to the case. The court master denied her motion.

Finally, in mid-May, the District Attorney's Office offered Sheldon a plea bargain. The district attorney would throw out the rape charge if Sheldon would plead guilty to a Class A assault, which would require him to pay a $500 fine, attend sex-education classes, and be on probation for six months. Growing increasingly worried about her chances of winning the case, Hack recommended that Sheldon accept the plea bargain.

But during a hearing on the plea bargain, Hack told the court master she had changed her mind. That morning, she had received Rhonda's Parkland and Timberlawn records that she had subpoenaed at her own expense. When she read Rhonda's statement that her cousin had raped her and that she was seeking revenge against her boyfriend for hitting her and breaking off the relationship, Hack was resolved to clear Sheldon's name.

Ramirez angrily said he would go ahead with the trial on the rape charge, according to Hack. The trial was set for July 11.

Hack had thought the Parkland and Timberlawn evidence would convince the district attorney to drop the case. Now, she was very worried and told the Pearls they were free to seek other counsel. "I don't know why they hung in there with me," Hack says. The Pearls did have their doubts, but they appreciated Hack's faith in them and the hard work she was doing.

In early June, Sheldon went to municipal court for his and Rhonda's misdemeanor assault charges against one another. Rhonda did not show up, and the case against Sheldon was dismissed.

At the end of June, about three weeks before trial, Hack made a last-ditch effort on her client's behalf. She filed a half-dozen motions in Gaither's court, including a motion for summary judgment--in effect asking the judge to dismiss the case--and once again asking for permission to videotape a deposition of Rhonda.

Clad in a pink dress and matching full-brimmed hat, Hack stood before Gaither and made her case on the motions. To Hack's chagrin, Gaither informed her that summary judgments are not appropriate in juvenile cases. But he did reverse the master's decision and granted her the right to depose Rhonda. Ramirez vehemently argued against the judge's decision and claimed that the Pearls and their attorney had already harassed Rhonda and her father by trying to get them to drop the charges.

Gaither told the lawyers he was allowing the deposition "because questions involved in a case can often be cleared up without a three- or four-day jury trial."

Mrs. Pearl, Sheldon, and Miss Haywood left the courtroom rattled and confused. They stepped into an empty office to collect themselves for the emotional ordeal that the deposition would entail.

"This boy is just a child," Haywood, sitting in the empty office, told the Observer that day. "She [Rhonda] appears sweet and petite, but she is just wreaking havoc. She put this family under duress that is unbelievable."

Sheldon sighed. "I just want this to be over," he said.
A few moments later, a court bailiff walked in looking for Hack, who rushed back into the courtroom to learn that the district attorney had just nonsuited--or dismissed--the case without prejudice. Had it been dismissed with prejudice, Sheldon would have been vindicated and a completely free man. But "without prejudice" means the prosecutor has reserved the right to refile the charges anytime in the next four years.

Both Hack and the Pearls tried to contact the District Attorney's Office to get more information about the decision. No one returned their calls. Assistant District Attorney Ramirez and his supervisor, Gary Arey, told the Observer they could not comment on a case involving juveniles. Attorneys familiar with the juvenile justice system say it is unlikely that the district attorney will refile the case. "It's a way to encourage kids not to get in any more trouble," says one attorney.

Sitting in her kitsch-cluttered office-apartment, Linda Hack says she feels bad about the outcome. "Sometimes I think I should have gone for the plea bargain and it would have ended sooner for Sheldon. But why should he be on probation for something he didn't do?

"I have lingering guilt. I got the case dismissed, but Sheldon is still a hostage to the system. That's the real injustice. I worry about how Sheldon is going to think about women in the future. I truly believe a false rape charge is worse than the act itself. It victimizes the rest of us who were actually victims. It makes us go through more to prove the truth and diminishes our status. I feel sorry for the girl, but I feel more sorry for my clients. They are such good people and they were so wronged."

A few weeks ago, Sheldon told his mother he didn't think he would date again until he was a high-school senior. "Until then, girls will just be my sisters," he said. He says the whole ordeal was chilling, but that he won't let it ruin his life.

Neither, apparently, will his classmates. At the end of the school year, his class of 1,500 voted him Freshman of the Year. He could not fully appreciate the honor, though, with the trial looming over him.

Honors like that help to put the case behind him, but he still fears another humiliating arrest. Worse, he's lost faith in the system. "I went through all this just to find out no one was lying and no one was telling the truth," he says. "The case just ended. It's unsettling and unfair.

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