Sympathy for the Devil

Six years ago, a St. Louis judge took a hell of a risk. He let Von Nebbitt go free despite years of drug dealing and stealing, weapons offenses and parole violations. One of them has learned a lesson.

Nobody was surprised when Von Nebbitt — a.k.a. Kevin Cox, a.k.a. Anthony Davis, a.k.a. Cedric Davis, a.k.a. Warren Meriweather, a.k.a. Jevon Teycial — pleaded guilty as a "prior and persistent offender" to his ninth criminal charge, possession of heroin. The judicial system knew Nebbitt mainly as Kevin Cox and had pieced together a record spanning grand theft, grand auto theft and all the "possession" arrests police make when they think somebody's dealing but they can't nail a transaction. "Cox" had also racked up a ludicrous number of traffic violations while squealing away from police cars. And 27 additional arrests (including murder, kidnapping, assault and arson) had never made it to the warrant stage. Could've been insufficient evidence, could've been groundless, a legal form of harassment that lets police pick up their prey and fly around a bit before releasing it.

In the fall of 1993, the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole conducted a pre-sentencing investigation of Nebbitt and recommended six years in prison on the heroin charge. "This defendant has an extensive arrest history spanning at least two states and over 13 years," wrote parole officer Paula J. LeGrand, noting an "ingrained pattern of behavior which has not been deterred by legal consequence.... It should be noted that the defendant committed the present offense while he was on parole for illegal possession of cocaine, a conviction stemming from his Dec. 11, 1988, arrest which, it should also be noted, was itself committed while the defendant was on parole for unlawful use of a weapon.... This defendant appears out of control."

St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Thomas Frawley duly highlighted every comment quoted above — except the last sentence.

Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Silverberg
Nebbitt with his mother, Ernestine Underwood: "I was getting ready for work, and he called and said, ®Mama, if you don't help me, I'm gonna die.'"

Then he released Nebbitt on probation.

High Risk

To this day, Frawley's not exactly sure why he let Nebbitt go, except that he was older than most drug-crime defendants — 27 at the time — and articulate. He'd earned an associate's degree in prison, with a startling 3.861 grade-point average. He'd recently enrolled himself in drug rehab. And he seemed — the liberal's dream — to have finally gained some insight.

"It is the judgment and sentence of the Court," Frawley began, then broke off. "Mr. Nebbitt, I hope what you've told me isn't just words. I'm going to suspend imposition of sentence and put you on probation for five years."

Stunned, Nebbitt thanked him three times, promising fervently, "I won't let you down."

Frawley crisply issued a list of rules: "You're going to have to go to BASIC (Black Alcohol Drug Service Information Center, a nonprofit treatment and education program) six times a week. If they kick you out of the program for any reason, they're kicking you into my lap. Is that square?"

"Yes, sir."

Frawley further stipulated that Nebbitt live with his parents; undergo intensive supervision and random drug testing; attend stress-management classes and two 12-step meetings a week; and do community service. Then he built in a 30-year backup sentence if Nebbitt violated probation, and told the young man to go show the prosecutor, and everybody else betting against him, that they were wrong.

The parole officer, LeGrand, refuses to comment about the confidential file — but she must have exploded. "This defendant reports experiencing even more arrests than were discovered through computer checks," she'd written. "He says his longest job was a seasonal position as car washer for Supreme Auto Wash." When Nebbitt scored high for drug risk but low for aggression on the Missouri Substance Abuse Questionnaire, the parole officer recommended that his score "be upgraded considerably, given the history of violence which is not only reflected in his arrest history but also admitted by him in conversation."

LeGrand's logic was circular — prison hadn't taught him anything, so therefore he was incorrigible and should be sent to prison — but it was hard to argue with her flat conclusion: "He seems at high risk for re-offending."

The next item in Nebbitt's file is a May 17, 1994, parole report from Officer Gary R. Jerrison, stating that, to date, Nebbitt had "done a remarkable job in turning his life around." Then there's a November 1994 letter from Nebbitt to the judge, saying he'd organized a fundraising art auction for BASIC and had been under the tutelage of an artist who'd encouraged him to return to college. "I no longer desire to paint myself into a corner," he ended.

March 27, 1996: Early discharge from probation. Still living with his parents, Nebbitt was now working at Barnes Hospital, attending college and applying to graduate school.

The last item, dated May 14, 1999: A commencement announcement from Washington University's George Warren Brown School of Social Work, addressed to Frawley. "It has been six years since I stood before your bench feeling lost and afraid," Nebbitt wrote in the enclosed letter, "and I have gotten a lot done in that time.... I still believe that the day you looked me in the eyes and told me that I had what it took to make it is the day that my potential was released. I could never thank you enough for seeing in me what I had not yet seen in myself." It was signed "Von E. Nebbitt, M.S.W."

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