Tronneal Mangum escapes life sentence for 1997 murder of classmate

Updated March 18, 2016

After years of insisting that the boy who shot and killed his 13-year-old son outside Conniston Middle School should die in prison, Ashraf Kamel finally relented.

But he didn’t attend Friday’s hearing where Tronneal Mangum’s life sentence was thrown out and replaced with a 40-year term.

“I didn’t want to see that boy,” the 56-year-old suburban Lake Worth man said by phone.

The 14-year-old boy who shot Jean Pierre Kamel outside the West Palm Beach school in 1997 is now a 32-year-old man. When he was sentenced for shooting his classmate in a dispute over a watch, he was the youngest person in county history to receive a life sentence.

While Mangum didn’t look at his mother, Linda Steward, during the brief hearing, he called her later. “He said he could hardly contain himself,” said Steward, who lives in Palm Beach Gardens. “He said he was ecstatically happy to know he has a number.”

The number is actually about 21 years. In approving the agreement between prosecutors, Mangum’s attorney and Kamel, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Jack Cox gave Mangum credit for the 6,990 days — roughly 19 years — he has already spent behind bars. That means he could be freed when he is in his early fifties.

Cox also agreed to ask that Mangum be transferred to a prison that offers more vocational programs than available at Martin Correctional Institution, where he has been held.

While he has earned his graduate-equivalency diploma and has become a certified paralegal while incarcerated, now that he has future beyond the prison walls, he wants more, Steward said. Mangum would like to get a bachelor’s degree, focusing on programs involving the law, she said.

Mangum owes his looming freedom to two landmark decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2010, it ruled juveniles couldn’t be sentenced to life without parole for crimes other than homicide. Two years later, it expanded that ruling to include murder.

Juveniles, the high court ruled, are impetuous because their brains aren’t fully developed. Not only are they often unaware of the consequences of their actions but, studies have shown, they also are amenable to rehabilitation, it ruled in decisions known as Graham and Miller, the names of the juveniles who took the case to the Supreme Court.

Noting that Magnum hasn’t committed any infractions in prison and has worked to improve himself, his attorney, Jennifer Marshall, said he is a poster child for the high court’s decision.

“He is the very epitome of what Graham and Miller stand for - that the person we are at 14 is not the person we are at 35,” she said. “Young people are capable of incredible growth and change and Tronneal Mangum personifies that.”

Former State Attorney Barry Krischer, who prosecuted Mangum, said the agreement assures the long-running saga is over. “In terms of closure for the family, it was the right thing to do,” he said.

But, Kamel said, there will never be closure. While he has two children with a woman he married after Jean Pierre’s death, he said not a second goes by that he doesn’t think about the boy he raised as a single father after his first wife returned to Egypt.

He still doesn’t understand why Kamel shot Jean Pierre. Born without a tibia, he had a prosthetic leg. He would have been no match for Magnum in a fist fight. Mangum never revealed where he got the gun.

Believing Conniston officials could have done more to protect their son, he and his ex-wife, Marguerite Dimitri, sued the Palm Beach County School District. While a jury awarded them $1.6 million, they only recovered $100,000 each. Under state law, the legislature must pass a special bill before more could be paid. Bills languished for years in the Legislature but were never passed.

Steward said she wishes she could have talked to Kamel at Friday’s hearing. She said she would have told him Mangum is deeply sorry for killing his son.

Kamel said he has mixed feelings about the reduced sentence. But he’s pragmatic.

“What happened today, at least he’s not free, which is what he wanted,” he said. “At least for the time being, he’ll stay in jail.”