Man convicted of slaying as juvenile should not go free

Would you want Brooks Bellay as your neighbor?

Would you want to live next door to a middle-aged, just-released convict who, as a young teen in Vero Beach in 1979, brutally beat a 4-year-old girl to death – he might have sexually assaulted her first – then pleaded guilty to murder, received a life sentence and essentially grew up in prison?

Would you want to give him a second chance, not knowing if all those years behind bars, where he was institutionalized and socialized in a harsh environment in which he was surrounded by some of Florida’s worst criminals, made him a better man or a bigger monster?

You don’t get a say.

As a result of two of the United States Supreme Court’s most wrongheaded decisions – made worse by the Florida Supreme Court’s absurd ruling that those decisions be applied retroactively – hundreds of inmates serving life terms around the state for murders they committed as juveniles must be resentenced.

So Bellay’s fate now rests with Circuit Judge Lawrence Mirman, who will preside over a mandatory resentencing hearing on Oct. 23 in Stuart.

Mirman’s choices are these:

nHe can deem that 37 years in prison is sufficient and order Bellay’s release.

nHe can reduce his sentence to something less than life, which means Bellay could eventually get out.

nHe can resentence Bellay to life, which means only a state parole commission could someday set him free.

Whatever Mirman decides, however, the U.S. and Florida supreme courts ruled that he must do more than weigh the arguments made at the resentencing hearing by both the State Attorney’s Office and Bellay’s lawyer from the Public Defender’s Office.

The judge also must consider Bellay’s age and maturity at the time he committed the murder, his background – including his conduct in prison – and other potentially mitigating factors.

In other words, Mirman must find a way to go back 38 years to that hot, August day when the nude, battered and lifeless body of 4-year-old Angel Ann Halstead was found under some vegetation in a wooded area only 100 yards from her 25th Avenue home.

He must sift through the grisly details of how an innocent child suffered such a horrific death at the hands of a beefy, 14-year-old boy who lived around the corner.

He must try to make sense of Bellay participating in the massive, community search for the missing child, leading police to the area where Halstead’s body was discovered 36 hours after she had mysteriously disappeared and, according to court records, eventually confessing to killing her.

He must get inside Bellay’s teen mind and determine whether the boy’s not-yet-fully-developed brain rendered him incapable of fully recognizing the barbaric nature of his crime and fully appreciating the consequences of his actions.

Ultimately, Mirman must decide whether Bellay, at age 14, possessed the mental and emotional maturity to be held fully culpable for the murder – as he was in July 1980, when, shortly before his first-degree murder trial was to begin in Vero Beach, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and accepted a life sentence.

“He deserves to be in prison,” said Nikki Robinson, one of two assistant state attorneys working on Bellay’s resentencing. “The crime was heinous. A 4-year-old girl was murdered, beaten to death, and there was some type of sexual contact. Then he goes through the process of pretending to search for her?

“It’s frightening to think a 14-year-old boy was capable of something like that,” she added. “And to now unleash this individual back into the public and hope he is reformed? It’s terrifying, absolutely terrifying.”

Not only could Bellay be released from prison – it is possible there would be no parole-like restrictions on him; nor would there be any warning to the community in which he might choose to reside.

As Robinson put it, if the judge decides to release Bellay: “This wouldn’t be parole. There would be no probation. There would be no sex-offender notification, because he was never charged with a sex crime. Once he’s out, he’s out. He would have served his sentence. He’d be a free man.”

If such a possibility concerns you, imagine how Halstead’s family members feel. They want Bellay, now 52, to spend the rest of his life in prison.

In fact, when Bellay first came up for parole in 1991, Halstead’s father, George, collected a petition containing more than 3,000 signatures and successfully convinced the parole commission to keep his daughter’s killer in prison.

The commission again took up Bellay’s case in 2008, when it denied his bid for parole but allowed him to be interviewed by a commission examiner in 2013. His next chance for parole won’t come until May 2020 – if Mirman doesn’t set him free.

“It hurts the family, but it’s more about the community,” said Staci Teague, Halstead’s sister. “He’s still young enough to where he can still hurt a small child. If he gets out, he’s a free man. He can do anything and live near anyone. We don’t want another family to go through this.”

Nor does the man who prosecuted Bellay’s case nearly four decades ago.

Former State Attorney Bob Stone questions the wisdom of even considering the possibility of allowing Bellay to walk free.

“The guy has been in prison so long, he’s fully institutionalized,” said Stone, who still lives in Vero Beach and has a law practice here. “He grew up incarcerated. That’s all he knows.

“How is he going to adapt to being back in society? There’s no way to know how he will react,” he added. “Does he have any family? Does he have somewhere to go? Will he be homeless? Who’s going to give him a job, so he can support himself?

“They better have a re-entry plan.”

Stone worries about the possible harm Bellay could do.

Though police reports and court records indicate that Halstead was sexually assaulted, and possibly raped, before she died, an autopsy failed to confirm such an attack.

That’s why Bellay was never charged with a sex crime. That’s also why Stone, lacking the forensic evidence needed to prove Halstead was raped and secure a first-degree murder conviction, made the plea offer.

“Without sexual assault, we didn’t have a first-degree murder case, so we made a deal for second-degree murder with a life sentence,” Stone said. “My understanding was that he’s going to spend the rest of his life behind bars.”

Halstead’s family thought so, too.

Now, however, because the nation’s and state’s high courts have embraced science that says teenagers lack the brain development to fully comprehend – and, thus, be held fully responsible for – their violent criminal behavior, the Halsteads must re-live a 38-year nightmare.

“We sold the victim’s family on a deal that he’d be in prison for life,” Robinson said, adding that she has been in contact with the Halsteads. “They believed, at that time, this was over – that this person was gone. Now there’s a chance he could be back on the streets.”

Asked whether Bellay, if set free, posed a threat to the public, Robinson wondered why anyone would want to take that risk, based merely on the hope that he won’t.

“If a kid was doing this kind of stuff at age 13, 14, 15 years old, what is he capable of doing as an adult?” she said. “God help us if something happens.”

“People need to realize just how horrible this crime was,” Stone said. “Her name was Angel, and she really looked like one . … This was very tough on the whole community.”

Teague said she hopes and prays Mirman keeps Bellay in prison, but, for the first time, she now worries that freeing him is a real possibility.

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

The hard truth is: Actions have consequences – an often-unpleasant and sometimes-painful lesson most of us learned throughout our childhoods and long before our 14th birthdays.

We were taught, early on, the difference between right and wrong, good and bad. The rules at home were every bit as important as the law of the land, and the enforcement was usually far stricter.

Apparently, Bellay never learned those childhood lessons, or they weren’t enforced. By age 14, though, his brain surely was developed enough to know that beating a young girl was wrong and killing was a crime.

That hasn’t changed, and neither should his sentence.

I don’t think any of us want Brooks Bellay as a neighbor.

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