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Jailed Retarded Boy Let Go

After weeks of defending their decision to prosecute as an adult an imprisoned 15-year-old retarded boy who stole $2 in lunch money, prosecutors in Florida dropped the charges last week — after a 60 Minutes crew showed up to do a story on the boy.

Anthony Laster, who communicates on the level of a 5-year-old, spent more than four weeks, including Christmas, in jail before being released last week. His sister was unable to raise $500 to get him out.

In all, he spent 48 days in custody, including four weeks in an adult county jail.

The prosecutor offered no apologies for his zero-tolerance stand in the case of Laster, who never knew his father and whose mother died in November.

"You do not cherry-pick the cases. You do not say you feel sorry for this person because there's a developmental disability, or this person has had a bad family life so we won't charge him as an adult," said Mike Edmondson, a spokesman for Palm Beach County prosecutor Barry Krischer.

Edmondson said the decision to drop the charges had nothing to do with 60 Minutes. Instead, he held that the 14-year-old victim changed his story and his new version did not back up the severity of the charges.

The child originally told police he felt threatened and in fear of physical harm when Laster demanded his money during art class Dec. 1 at a Boynton Beach middle school. Later, he said he did not feel he was in danger.

Assistant State Attorney Angela Miller noted in court papers dropping the charges, that the prosecution of the case had generated "community interest" in helping Laster from the Association of Retired Citizens and the Urban League.

John Walsh, an attorney with the Juvenile Advocacy Project who was appointed by a court to represent Laster, bristled at that document, calling it "self-serving."

State law gives prosecutors authority to decide which juveniles are treated as adults. Edmondson said in Palm Beach County, the policy is to treat as adults all offenders who are at least 14 years old and have committed a felony.

"If it is automatic, they've got a lot of holes in their zero-tolerance policy," Walsh said.

Laster did not deny taking the money. He said he was hungry and used the money to buy candy, according to police.

"You rarely find cases this outrageous," said Dan Macallair, associate director of the Justice Policy Institute in San Francisco. "This particular prosecutor is prosecuting kids in adult court that probably shouldn't even have gotten past the school principal."