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‘Violation of trust’

Grandson assails passage of ‘Teenage Killer Protection Act’

Submitted photo This is one of the final pictures of Marie Belcastro, taken with her five great-grandchildren shortly before she was brutally murdered in March 2015 by Niles teen Jacob LaRosa. LaRosa originally received a life-without-parole sentence before Senate Bill 256 made it so anyone who committed murder as a juvenile must be given a chance at parole.

The grandson of the 94-year-old victim of convicted murderer Jacob LaRosa blames Ohio’s elected officials for giving the killer a chance for freedom in 19 years — and then every five years after that.

“We owe this miscarriage of justice to a Republican governor and legislature,” said Brian Kirk, who questioned how this new state law could happen in a place known for its tough-on-crime, common-sense approach to governing.

LaRosa was sentenced to life without parole plus 31 years in 2018 after pleading guilty to a host of crimes surrounding the 2015 brutal slaying of Marie Belcastro at her Niles home.

“If you’re familiar with my grandmother’s death you know that Marie was still living in her own home, independently, 94 years young. She was as excited as ever about her church and prayer groups, her family and friends, and her cooking. She also developed a love for fly-fishing at age 90, which she continued to nurture,” Kirk said in a prepared statement.

“My grandmother was full of energy, love, laughter and light, and showed no signs of slowing down. Anyone who ever met her instantly fell in love. She was quick with a joke, even quicker with a laugh. I thought for sure she’d live to 100.”

On March 31, 2015, that life ended in the home Belcastro’s father built. The perpetrator was then-15-year-old LaRosa. So horrifying were LaRosa’s crimes, including attempted rape, that Judge Wyatt McKay gave him the extraordinary sentence for the teen who was charged as an adult.

In his sentencing judgment, McKay wrote: “Defendant murdered a frail 94-year-old woman who was known to be kind to him. There was no known motive for the crime. Defendant brutally beat the victim repeatedly with a Mag flashlight.”

LaRosa’s long journey to convicted felon took three-and-a-half years, methodically winding its way first through the juvenile court system, then ultimately to the second-floor courtroom in downtown Warren.

“Our family left the courthouse that day of sentencing in October 2018 with a deep sense of gratitude for the people of Trumbull County, especially (assistant) Prosecutor Chris Becker and the Niles Police Department,” Kirk stated.

Sadly, Kirk noted, Ohio’s legislature and governor undid much of the successful prosecution of LaRosa.

With the signing of Senate Bill 256 earlier this month, the elected officials decreed just about anybody in prison for life who committed murder as a juvenile must be given a chance at parole.

“The law applies retroactively, which makes zero sense,” said Kirk, who said the legislation should have been named the “Teenage Killer Protection Act.”

WRITING THE GOVERNOR

Kirk, who now lives in Boynton Beach, Fla., said he wrote Gov. Mike DeWine, protesting his signing of Senate Bill 256 into law in early January.

“Sir, this law is tough on victims! I’m exhausted. I’m angry. But I’ve already made some friends who are committed to this fight. I will get through this because I will dedicate my life to overturning this massive injustice. Can you help us?” Kirk wrote.

Kirk told DeWine his options include a lawsuit, constitutional amendment or replacement legislation, as he talks about targeted social media campaigns to state legislators.

Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins vowed to do everything he can to keep LaRosa behind bars for the maximum sentence possible.

“This office will continue to vigorously oppose Jacob LaRosa’s release and take all necessary steps, including any potential appeals if warranted, to ensure Jacob LaRosa serves the maximum sentence permissible,” Watkins said.

“Before we had closure, backed up by steel bars and armed guards,” he said.

Kirk said this law is a violation of the trust all Ohioans are asked to put in the judicial system.

“A better use of the legislature’s time would have been to find a way to better punish and track juveniles when they escape from a detention facility, as LaRosa once did,” Kirk stated. “Or they could have reformed domestic violence laws so that when a juvenile puts a sibling in the hospital, as LaRosa once did, he can face real justice.”

OTHER VOICES

State Rep. Michael J. O’Brien and former Rep. Gil Blair, both Valley Democrats, voted against the legislation during the lame-duck 2020 session after the election.

O’Brien said Kirk’s cause will be helped by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision Thursday against new restrictions on juvenile sentencing. O’Brien said that action may be the constitutional solution, but it is not enough, and he will be meeting with the state prosecutor’s association to find a legislation solution.

“This is unfair for the victims in this case that LaRosa would be eligible for parole in 2043,” O’Brien said.

Watkins also recognized the new law wiped out prosecution efforts to protect the public.

“This law not only changes and overrides Ohio’s historical, proper and warranted sentencing scheme giving Ohio common pleas judges wide discretion in decision-making for the most serious juvenile offenders, but because of its retroactivity, nullifies the hard work and judgments of judges throughout the state who have previously, in their discretion and after careful consideration of the facts and background of juvenile offenders such as LaRosa, determined that life without parole sentences were necessary to protect the public from these offenders,” Watkins stated.

Also speaking against the new law is Lara Gingerich, Ohio director of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers. In a statement shortly after the passage of S.B. 256, Gingerich wrote: “Once again, victims have been significantly harmed. SB 256 is a dangerous bill that passed due to recklessness and gross negligence on the part of politicians and lies and propaganda on the part of activists. 256 will directly lead to violent crime. The writing is on the wall and that writing is in blood.”

But the new law also has some supporters.

Kenza Kamal, policy director at the Juvenile Justice Coalition of Ohio, applauded the legislature for ending the “cruel” practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole.

“For years, we have known that extreme punishment for young people is harmful to their growth and the future of our communities. Ohio spends millions of dollars confining and incarcerating young people, denying their humanity and dignity, rather than empowering them and investing in their communities and schools,” Kamal stated.

But Kirk also applauds the recent high court decision, saying past actions by that body had been the excuse for Ohio Republicans and others to allow paroles for juvenile killers.

“Supporters say S.B. 256 is about rehabilitation. I believe in a God who does give second and more chances. My grandmother was a woman of deep faith, and I know she’d share that good news with LaRosa if she could,” Kirk said. “God can and does forgive. I can forgive. But this wonderful fact does not absolve LaRosa of the consequences for his actions. Only God (and S.B. 256 apparently) can do that.”

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