On May 8, Stuart Peterson and two other men robbed the F&J Food Mart on Biltmore Avenue at gunpoint. A witness to the gang-related heist described their vehicle to police, and all three were soon caught and charged with armed robbery. It was Peterson's first felony arrest.
But those who know the 20-year-old Asheville resident report that in the ensuing months, something unusual happened: Peterson got his life straight.
"He had done better since his arrest than he had in years," his mother, Michelle Peterson, told Xpress. "We had some difficult times when he was younger — he didn't want to work; he wanted to run the streets. But since he'd gotten into trouble, he'd changed so much: how he handled situations, his maturity. He knew what he had done was wrong. He had completely turned his life around."
Peterson began seeing a therapist, entered a substance-abuse treatment program and started working with Asheville Green Opportunities, a nonprofit that places unemployed youth in green jobs. Those who worked alongside him say he became a model leader, contributing to various projects around the area.
"He was so excited about being an architect, about trying to build greener homes," his mother recalls, and he was planning to weatherize their own apartment.
Peterson also made presentations to juvenile offenders, urging them to stay away from the lifestyle he had once embraced.
"I was moved by the number of juveniles who indicated to me that they wanted to make better choices after listening to Stuart speak," Kimberly Simpkins, a juvenile-justice counselor who observed two of Peterson's presentations, wrote in a letter pleading for leniency in his case.
Co-workers, who note that Peterson was part of an "extended family" at Asheville GO, say the tales of his former life were hard to believe.
"I knew he'd done some bad stuff," GO member Kelvin Bonilla recalls. "But Stu was cool; he was this laid-back guy. I cannot see him going in and robbing someone, and then I heard that's what he had gotten in trouble for. Definitely he'd changed so much."
During Peterson's Nov. 19 trial, seven people testified to Superior Court Judge James Downs about the defendant's redemption. In addition to family members, they included his therapist; GO co-founder Dan Leroy; a juvenile whom Peterson had helped; and Detective Louis Tomasetti of the Asheville Police Department's Gang Suppression Unit.
But apparently, Judge Downs wasn't moved. Although he did rule that Peterson's "local support network" and acceptance of responsibility for his crime were mitigating factors, he still sent the young man to prison for 44 months.
"It was a really unexpected decision," says his mother, who now wears a black shirt proclaiming "Free Stuart Peterson!" While her son had accepted that he'd have to do time, she'd figured that his post-arrest efforts would be taken into account.
"We knew there was potential for him to get what he got, but we were thinking along the lines of a short prison sentence and a long probation. I just feel slighted by the court system. There are other cases where there's the exact same charges and the other person got nine months in jail [and] five years' probation. It seems like there's no equality at all."
She's now looking for a way to get the justice system to reopen the case and reconsider the ruling.
One of the purposes of Asheville GO, notes Leroy, is to present alternatives to incarceration for those who want to change their lives; sentences such as the one dished out to Peterson, Leroy maintains, undermine that work.
"When we interviewed Stu, he so clearly recognized he'd made mistakes, but he wanted to do something different," remembers Leroy. "He really dug deep and overcame his own fears; he has tremendous leadership potential."
GO member Jamison Dickerson also feels the ruling sends the wrong message to those in Peterson's situation.
"You can pull up countless instances where someone's done something and hasn't really tried to right their wrongs," says Dickerson. "It sends a mixed message when you have someone who's worked so hard to change the outcome of their life, and it's like it didn't matter. When you're dealing with disadvantaged youth, the lesson doesn't hit until you learn the lesson or you've been around someone who's experienced it, who has that credibility. Stu is a very valuable person in that respect, because he's been [down] that road, and he's changed."
By coincidence, just after sentencing Peterson, Judge Downs heard the case of Charles Alexander Diez, the former Asheville firefighter who fired on cyclist Alan Simons in July. At the time, Simons was walking away from a confrontation started by Diez, who narrowly missed shooting the cyclist in the head. In court, Diez claimed it was a "warning shot."
After hearing testimony about Diez's good character from former colleagues, Downs suspended most of the defendant's 15- to 27-month sentence. He will spend four months in prison.
Leroy, meanwhile, feels Peterson's sentence doesn't do justice to the contribution he was making and could have continued to make. "There's a void in this community," says Leroy. "There was no one who had the life experience he had, with the sort of involvement in gang activity, that could speak to young people, that related to them. He had the potential to play a role that nobody else has yet played."
Peterson's former co-workers also fear what prison may do to him.
"If he stays for the duration of his sentence, he's going to be a different person," Dickerson predicts.