EXCLUSIVE: Parents of teen killed by Conniston classmate again try claims bill

  • Kenya Woodard
  • Post Capital Correspondent
8:00 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018 Politics
Ashraf Kamel and Marguerite Dimitri, father and mother of Jean Pierre Kamel, in 2002 during the trial of their lawsuit against the Palm Beach County School Board. (Jennifer Podis/Palm Beach Post)

For years, Ashraf Kamel and his ex-wife, Marguerite Dimitri, tried to persuade Florida lawmakers to award them more of the $1.6 million verdict they won in 2002 for the 1997 shooting death of their 13-year-old son, Jean Pierre, at Conniston Middle School in West Palm Beach.

They received the $200,000 statutory limit from the Palm Beach County School District after the verdict, but their hopes of collecting more have dwindled, along with the hoped-for amount, ever since. In 2004, they saw their claims bill requesting the remaining $1.4 million amended t0 one that would allow the school district to pay them another $400,900. And the bill failed.

By 2012, they had agreed to accept $360,000 in addition to the $200,000 originally paid, but state lawmakers again refused to approve the claim bill filed by then Sen. Mandy Dawson, D-Fort Lauderdale, whose district included part of Palm Beach County.

In 2015, they decided not to seek a claims bill, preferring to wait until the atmosphere in Tallahassee was more favorable.

They are back this year, and it appears legislators may have made a 180-degree turn from previous sessions, said the couple’s longtime attorney, Adam Donor.

“We’ve never got this far,” he said. “This year, we have a serious run at it because the climate is right.”

Kamel, owner of a West Palm Beach-based limousine service, told The Palm Beach Post he, too, is optimistic.

“I have a feeling that it will be finished this year and be over with,” he said. “I want to put it behind me.”

Seventh-grader Jean Pierre Kamel, who wore a prosthetic leg because he was born without a tibia, was shot to death by classmate Tronneal Mangum, then 14, on Jan. 28, 1997 outside Conniston Middle shortly before school started that Monday morning. At the time it was described as a dispute over a wristwatch, although Kamel recently told The Post the reasons why Mangum shot his son remain a mystery to him.

“Somebody just took his life away,” Kamel, of suburban Lake Worth, said.

In 1998, Mangum was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, at the time the youngest person to be sentenced to life in prison in Palm Beach County. But in 2016, a Palm Beach County judge reduced that term to 40 years in prison following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 2012 that juveniles couldn’t be sentenced to life without parole even for murder.

Believing Conniston officials could have done more to protect their son, Kamel and Dimitri sued the school district, claiming they were victims of the school district’s negligence. While a jury awarded them $1.6 million in 2002, they received only the $200,000 that governments in Florida are limited to pay in lawsuits under state law. Each of them received $100,000.

To force a government entity to pay more than $200,000 of a legal judgment or settlement in Florida, state law requires that the Legislature must pass a special bill called a claims bill.

This year, Kamel’s and Dimitri’s claims bill has been filed not by Palm Beach County lawmakers but by two legislators outside the county, Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, and Rep. Jake Raburn, R-Lithia.

Both Gibson and Donor declined to say why Palm Beach County lawmakers were not sponsoring the bill.

Raburn’s bill (HB 6523) has passed all its committees and is awaiting action on the House floor. Gibson’s bill (SB 48) has won approval in three committees, including Tuesday’s meeting of the Governmental Oversight and Accountability committee, and is awaiting a hearing in its fourth, and final, Senate committee.

The legislation would award Kamel and Dimitri $180,000 each for a total of $360,000, the same balance they agreed to in a previous session.

Gibson said she sponsored the claims bill for Kamel and Dimitri this session because “if you’re injured, you have access to make your case. People have the right to make their claim and be heard.”

But lawmakers typically are tight-fisted when it comes to approving claims bills. Sometimes the bills are held as hostages in negotiating between chambers, and they often die in the final hours of the session. Approval of claims bills also can depend on the mood or beliefs of leadership. For two consecutive years in 2013 and 2014, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, refused to allow any claims bills through the upper chamber on the principle he was opposed to them, meaning none passed the Legislature at all.

In the meantime, Kamel and Dimitri, and other victims of government negligence, waited.

Passage of the claims bill would help ease the pain for Kamel of his son’s death, something that is “never out of my mind,” Kamel said.

But if it again fails to pass, Kamel said he won’t harbor any ill will toward legislators.

He’ll just return to the Capitol next year and find a legislator to file yet another claims bill.

“I know some things take time,” he said. “(Legislators are) just doing their jobs.”