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Charlottesville judge frustrated by proliferation of guns after teen found at playground with AR-15

There was one thing that everyone seemed to agree on during a recent firearms possession hearing: 18-year-old Nyeem Rysuan Hill is a promising young man.

However, it was also agreed that he brought an AR-15-style rifle and a pistol to a Charlottesville playground last fall despite having a juvenile felony on his record.

Such facts, combined with a spate of gun violence that has rocked Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County over the past 18 months, led a judge to delay his decision on Hill’s sentencing. Charlottesville Circuit Judge Claude Worrell told lawyers and family members who gathered in late April to hear the judge pronounce a sentence that he needed to ponder this case over the summer.

“Mr. Hill, I’m at a loss for what to do,” Worrell said. “I’m a little bit stuck.”

Worrell had already heard from Hill’s mother, Notieca Samara Hill, about an ADHD diagnosis and some anger issues from growing up without his father in the home.

“He was angry a lot,” Hill’s mother testified. “The least little thing would set him off.”

Nonetheless, she said her son was a loving big brother to his 6-year-old brother and until his arrest held a job at Lumpkin’s, the landmark Scottsville-area motel and restaurant.

The court also heard from Nyeem Hill’s girlfriend, Dajahnae Bryant, who spoke warmly of his willingness to spend quality time with her two toddlers.

“He’s a very caring person,” she said.

A letter in the court file from Jessica Kirby, the mother of a friend, attests to the teen’s positive qualities.

“There is so much good in Nyeem,” wrote Kirby, who said that he began attending church after visiting a religious youth revival with her son.

“He was making plans to attend PVCC and was also looking into other community colleges in Northern Virginia,” she wrote.

But on Nov. 15, police were called to the playground at the Westhaven public housing complex on a report that Hill was livestreaming on Facebook with a pistol and a semi-automatic rifle that resembled an AR-15.

Had he not shown himself handling firearms that autumn day on Hardy Drive, Nyeem Hill’s juvenile criminal record might have receded into the past. Instead, it was discussed in open court.

Before he reached the age of majority, the prosecutor said, he was involved in a shootout and was convicted of receiving a stolen car. In that case, he was initially charged with two crimes, including carrying a weapon while being the subject of a protective order. Earlier this year, however, the judge approved a plea agreement which dropped that charge and convicted him only on the charge of being a felon in possession of a gun. The agreement was silent on the punishment.

“He’s an incredible, young individual, and he was just 18 when this offense occurred,” said Charlottesville Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nina-Alice Antony.

Still, she said she was seeking a sentence that would put Nyeem Hill behind bars for 12 to 18 months due to the scourge of guns in the area.

“We’ve had way too many cases, your honor, with young individuals who shouldn’t have them,” said Antony.

By contrast, Nyeem Hill’s attorney pressed for lenience and for understanding that a young person’s brain is not fully developed and is susceptible to peer pressure.

“The behavior that Nyeem is here for is adolescent behavior; it’s what adolescents do,” said his lawyer, Lacey Parker of the Office of the Public Defender. “That is something we can be sure he will outgrow.”

Appearing in court, the defendant declined to make a statement, but his lawyer said that he, held since his arrest at Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, conceded his mistake to a probation officer.

“I feel stupid,” she said he said, “because I threw away a career with an adult record at 18.”

Parker also spoke about the idea, propounded by some mental health professionals, that carrying guns is an understandable, if not always legal, response to trauma.

“This is a young person that doesn’t feel safe,” said Parker. “This is where he saw safety, misguidedly so.”

As he was considering the sentence, Judge Worrell said he also considered recent events, such as the March 4, 2023, fatal altercation at the Sunshine Supermarket on Cherry Avenue in the city. Worrell noted that the incident began as a fight with fists, but the two young men also happened to be armed and the conflict ended with a 20-year-old young man shot to death.

“What level of safety was given to either one of these individuals by possessing a firearm?” asked Worrell. “I tell you it’s none.”

Worrell asked whether guns make a person feel bigger, better or just different.

“I sit up here, and I wonder sometimes what it is about young people that are attracted to firearms,” said Worrell. “The fact of the matter is it doesn’t make you safer. It may be more dangerous.”

Worrell then mentioned the killing that took place just two weeks later near Elliewood Avenue, near the University of Virgina-adjacent Corner business district, a crime that claimed the life of a 26-year-old. The man who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder of that young man was carrying a 9mm pistol when he happened to see the 26-year-old, against whom he had a grudge.

“If he doesn’t have a firearm,” said Worrell, “maybe there’s a fistfight, maybe some words are exchanged.”

The judge, a former prosecutor who has assigned lengthy jail sentences for shootings, acknowledged that nobody was injured in Nyeem Hill’s case. But he continued to ask rhetorical questions.

“Everyone’s arming themselves to what end?” he asked.

Worrell then said he would take this sentence under advisement and decide in early July.

“Mr. Hill, July 8, and we’ll finish this sentence,” he said.


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