Ex-school athlete avoids prison with report on Ben Carson book
May 12, 2016 12:00 AM
Common Pleas Judge Anthony M. Mariani gave Youri Whindleton a sentence in a category of its own: a book report on “You Have a Brain: A Teen’s Guide to T.H.I.N.K. B.I.G.” by neurosurgeon and former presidential candidate Ben Carson.
Mike Brantley/AL.com via AP
By Karen Kane / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Youri Whindleton grew up in the roughest part of a rough town and stood out for being unlike many of the kids he knew in McKeesport.
He finished high school in 2012 with a clean juvenile record, an honors cord to wear on graduation day and a full scholarship to play football at a small college in West Virginia.
Then he blew it all.
He quit college. He returned to McKeesport, where he started using drugs, dealing heroin and carrying a gun. He was busted and convicted.
Wednesday, he was in court for sentencing, facing five to 10 years. Instead, Common Pleas Judge Anthony M. Mariani gave him a sentence in a category of its own: a book report on “You Have a Brain: A Teen’s Guide to T.H.I.N.K. B.I.G.” by neurosurgeon and former presidential candidate Ben Carson.
Judge Mariani told him to get a job, to stop using and selling drugs, to perform community service and to pass on what he had learned from the book that the judge had assigned him to read in March, when the defendant had appeared before him on a probation violation and gun arrest from October.
The judge spoke in court Wednesday about the unusual sentence, saying, “I didn’t take the bench that day with this in mind.”
During the March hearing, attorney James A. Wymard was passionate about insisting that state prison wasn’t appropriate for his client, asking, “Could we find another way?” the judge recounted.
Judge Mariani said he then recalled a conversation with his wife, who had bought the Carson book for their nephew’s 16th birthday.
“I can’t explain why, but this book popped into my brain. Literally, that’s how we got here today,” he said.
That’s when he assigned Mr. Whindleton to read the book and report on it: what he thought and how it affected him.
So on Wednesday the defendant — dressed in orange, the book held in his shackled hands — described the book, its premise and what it meant to him. He talked of developing his talents, being honest, cultivating insights, accruing knowledge and developing a relationship with God.
He said he was moved to share the book with other prisoners in his 60-person pod at the Allegheny County Jail. In fact, he said he was scheduled to make a presentation about the book Friday during a “graduation” of one of the prisoners from a special jail program in which Mr. Whindleton participates. He said the biggest points he learned from the book were to “put God first” and to be more patient.
He said he realizes he needs to change his environment and stay away from his old friends and get a job so he is “ready to be a father to my daughter,” who will be born next month.
“I think you’ve demonstrated that you get it,” Judge Mariani said. He acknowledged the risk associated with “going in another direction” from the sentence being sought by the Allegheny County District Attorney’s and county probation offices.
“There’s a lot of risk in doing [this.] … There’s risk to you, the recent life you’ve lived up to now is a risk for you and the others around you. There’s risk to the community if you go back to that life of dealing heroin and carrying a gun.”
Judge Mariani told Mr. Whindleton to report to court for a meeting in about three months.
The judge said he also had directed other defendants to read the Carson book prior to their sentencing, and each will be given a chance to make a report on it.
Mr. Whindleton was the first to be sentenced following his “book report.” He will be on parole for 20 months, then on probation for three years.
Mr. Wymard said he was grateful to the judge for “going way out on a limb. … I think he sees these kids coming and going and coming and going and he wanted to give something a try.”
Mr. Whindleton’s mother, Cora Ashley of McKeesport, said she was relieved. “He’s a good kid, really. I thank the judge,” she said.
Judge Mariani’s wife, Sharon, was in the courtroom and said she was looking for something “inspirational” for her nephew when she was “grabbed” by Dr. Carson’s book. She and the judge discussed the book at their dinner table that evening in February.
She said her husband told her “he saw something in [Mr. Wymard’s] advocacy and thought of the book and thought maybe this could make a difference.”
Karen Kane: email@example.com or 724-772-9180.