Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

A Camden judge speaks out: The criminal toll of joblessness

Superior Court Judge Michael Kassel's week revolved around what he described as "horrific senseless crimes," the particularly heinous killing of a Burlington County couple in a Camden row house three years ago.

A Camden judge speaks out: The criminal toll of joblessness

New county officers will have eight weeks of field training.
New county officers will have eight weeks of field training.

Superior Court Judge Michael Kassel's week revolved around what he described as "horrific senseless crimes," the particularly heinous killing of a Burlington County couple in a Camden row house three years ago.

So what does this crime have to do with this blog, which is about jobs? Everything, but we'll let the judge do the talking, as he did Friday when he sentenced one of the participants in Camden County Superior Court. You can read my story about the sentencing by clicking here.

But first, a brief recap of the case. In February, 2010, Muriah Ashley Huff, 18, of Cinnaminson, and Michael "Doc Money" Hawkins, 23, of Maple Shade, stopped by the house where Friday's defendant, Dennis "Hitman" Welch, then 19, now 22, was living with his sister, Shatara "Feisty" Carter, then 14, other relatives. The house was a hangout/bunk house for the Lueders Park Piru Bloods, a loosely knit offshoot of the violent gang that originated in California.

Hawkins was associated with the Bloods, but also was a member of the rival Crips. Who knows why he stopped by that night, but it would the last night of his life. His girlfriend was collateral damage, strangled by Carter, and others. All together 10 people participated in the death, some with one, some with the other, some with both. Welch started the ball rolling with Hawkins, initiating a beating, that led to a shooting, that led to more beating with a bat. After both Hawkins and Huff died, they were buried, in the snow, in the backyard.

What the victims and defendants had in common was their age. Most of the defendants were 18 or younger. The oldest people in the case were in their early 20s. Two have died and the rest will be in prison for years, even decades.

On Wednesday, a jury in Kassel's courtroom in Camden's "Hall of Justice" returned a murder verdict against one gang member. It was the second of two full trials that Kassel had presided over in this case. On Friday, Kassel had another defendant in court, Dennis Welch, for his sentencing. Because Welch used his fists in the beating instead of the baseball bat, he was allowed to plead to a lesser charge of aggravated manslaughter. The judge sentenced him to 25 years in prison.

In court, the judge heard Welch's lawyer, Jaime Kaigh, describe Welch as developmentally disabled, from a family similar under-endowed, including the sister involved in killing Huff. Two teachers spoke up for Welch, describing Welch as a follower, failed by the system, someone vulnerable to being manipulated, as a pawn, by a gang leader.

"I don't think Mr. Welch woke up in the morning and said," to paraphrase the judge, it's a great day for a double homicide. At Welch's sentencing hearing Friday, Kassel characterized the homicides as a situation that went from stupid, to bad, to worse, to horrific. 

"These types of crimes -- they are not just in Camden -- but throughout out our county: It's completely out of control," the judge said during Welch's sentencing hearing.

Putting aside the murders, what were Welch's options for a productive life, the judge asked. What would be a reasonable future for someone like Welch who, as his teachers said, was willing to work, but didn't have enough brain power or literacy to handle today's employment demands?

"Fifty years ago," Kassel said, "this county had plenty of jobs" for people like Welsh.

"They were blue collar jobs and you do them for 30 or 40 years. People bought homes and raised families," he said. At the end, he said, there were pensions and throughout, the workers had a reasonable hope that their children would find a more promising future.

"You drive down Admiral Wilson Boulevard and you see these industrial husks where thousands of men and women were working in these industries, making products for people to buy," Kassel said. "But those jobs don't exist any more."

Kassel told the people in the courtroom -- the usual smattering of lawyers and clients waiting their turn, some family members, some court clerks, some sheriffs and deputies -- that over the years as he has read many pre-sentence reports. And, he noted, for 90 percent of the people he sentences, particularly 90 percent of the young people, the reports "have no work history, or an egregiously spotty work history."

Is there a connection? The judge obviously thinks so.

Take Welch, for example, Kassel said. "He has no marketable skills. Who would employ him?

"It's a situation that has gotten bleaker and bleaker." 

Jane M. Von Bergen Inquirer Staff Writer
About this blog

Jobbing covers the workplace – employment, unemployment, management, unions, legal issues, labor economics, benefits, work-life balance, workforce development, trends and profiles.

Jane M. Von Bergen writes about workplace issues for the Inquirer.

Married to a photographer she met at her college newspaper, Von Bergen has been a reporter since fourth grade, covering education, government, retailing, courts, marketing and business. “I love the specific detail that tells the story,” she says.

Reach Jane M. at jvonbergen@phillynews.com.

Jane M. Von Bergen Inquirer Staff Writer