EXCLUSIVE: Lee County’s little-known crime & punishment program: Is it a true restorative process?

Author: Investigative Reporter Céline McArthur
Published: Updated:

We’re investigating a little-known crime and punishment program run by Lee County. Critics say they appear to create their own rules and we’re challenging them on it.

In a WINK News exclusive investigation, Céline McArthur takes you inside what’s called the Neighborhood Accountability Board.

We’re forcing the door open and shining a light on this Lee County program so you can see how it works. The Neighborhood Accountability Board is made up of county workers and community volunteers empowered to punish your kids if they get in trouble with the law. County leaders refuse to talk to me about it, and did not want me in a recent hearing. A county worker announced on Facebook, this meeting was going to happen without media and without an attorney present.

Lee County Youth Services Coordinator Nora Donato-Hitchcock’s public Facebook post regarding the Neighborhood Accountability Board

But when the county checked with the State Attorney’s Office, they learned they couldn’t keep us out.

Fort Myers criminal defense attorney Brian Edwards says it’s a diversion program usually offered to kids in lieu of a trial, not after one.

Brian Edwards, Fort Myers criminal defense attorney

“I’ve never had anybody sentenced essentially to diversion after trial,” said Edwards.

Daniel Marquez, the boy arrested, perp walked, locked up and then tried for sending a threatening text when he was 10-years-old, was court-ordered to go before the NAB as part of his probation. If he does what he’s told, his guilty verdict—currently on hold—could go away.

The county claims what you’re about to see is restorative justice. The Marquez family says if that’s the case, who was helped?

(Left to right) Roger Mercado, Nora Donato-Hitchcock, Danielle Clark, Bethany Quisenberry, Stephanie Wise talking part in Lee County’s Neighborhood Accountability Board

A group of five people are seated around a table. Three are public employees: Lee County’s Director of Human and Veteran Services Roger Mercado and Youth Services Program Manager Nora Donato-Hitchcock, along with Probation Officer Stephanie Wise.

The community members who chose to volunteer for Daniel’s session are Bethany Quisenberry and Danielle Clark.

They’re joined by Daniel Marquez, his father Dereck and brother Jonathan.

“We’re here to talk about what happened,” said Donato-Hitchcock.

For 40 minutes, the panel fired off questions about what led up to Daniel’s arrest.

“It’s important that you tell the truth,” Donato-Hitchcock warned Daniel.

The questioning was similar to what the boy faced at trial.

Clark: “What were you thinking when you sent the Google image of the gun?”

Quisenberry: “Were you texting him a lot? Was it unusual that he wouldn’t answer?”

Quisenberry: “So when this dad answered, what did the dad say?”

Clark: “You said that you were in the military… you have access to guns… do you have guns in the home?”

Clark: “So, did you hear anything in school about the recent shootings or anything like that?”

Mercado: “Did they do fingerprints and that kind of stuff, and ask you questions?”

Daniel: “I don’t really remember.”

“My impression was that it was an interrogation,” said Dereck.

The panel then wanted to discuss the harm done to everyone involved—the friend Daniel sent the texts to and his family, Daniel and his family, and the community. By definition, it’s a fundamental principle of restorative justice, which brings those affected together and encourages accountability.

List created by Lee County Youth Services Program Manager Nora Donato-Hitchcock and discussed at the Neighborhood Accountability Board

However, community impact was not explored in the meeting and Daniel’s friend and father did not show up or submit an impact statement for group discussion. They didn’t have to do either.

In the meeting, the panel also did not want to talk through what the Marquez family said harmed them the most: Sheriff Carmine Marceno’s social media campaign which drove the family to defend themselves in court and the court of public opinion.

Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno’s interview about Daniel’s arrest on FOX News in 2022.

“It’s created mental distress with PTSD, and they just stared blankly, and then changed the subject,” said Dereck.

“The experience had created some challenges for you guys. What we want to make sure that we do is compartmentalize, because everything that happened outside of this room has nothing to do with us talking to Daniel.” Director of Lee County Human and Veteran Services Roger Mercado’s remarks to the Marquez family

Early on in the meeting, Mercado told the Marquez family, “The experience had created some challenges for you guys. What we want to make sure that we do is compartmentalize, because everything that happened outside of this room has nothing to do with us talking to Daniel.”

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life, to tell an 11-year-old child, who was 10 at the time, to compartmentalize,” said Hilton Napoleon, Daniel’s attorney for his appeal.

Napoleon says if the Neighborhood Accountability Board really wanted to address the harm, Sheriff Carmine Marceno should have participated in the meeting.

“The fact that that he has gone out and perp walked an 11-year-old child… he doesn’t want to have to answer that, because he knows what he did is wrong,” said Napoleon. “If he really believed that what he did was right, and that what is happening to Daniel was the justice that Daniel deserved, he would be the first person to get in front of a camera and talk about it. He’s not camera shy by any stretch of the imagination.”

Napoleon’s also challenging the board’s end game.

“It’s almost like a redo of the trial—to get him to admit something that maybe the prosecutor forgot to ask them during questioning, and this is not a second bite at the apple,” said Napoleon.

In the end, Mercado and Donato-Hitchcock came up with what they called “the case plan,” or punishment for Daniel.

  • Conversation with a local felon-turned-activist
  • Meeting with a law enforcement officer to discuss proper social media use
  • Career assessment test
Case plan provided to Daniel at the conclusion of the Lee County Neighborhood Accountability Board hearing

Mercado asked Daniel, “So, is that something you think you’d be willing to do? Just to kind of help you figure out your future a little bit?”

Daniel appeared unsure on how to respond. His father was confused by suggestion.

“To give him a personal personality test that would help him determine a career at this point in his life makes no sense,” said Dereck.

“That’s not restoring anything that’s not helping anyone. It’s not helping anyone in the state of Florida,” said Napoleon.

Sandra Pavelka is a professor and director of the Institute for Youth and Justice Studies at FGCU, and an international expert in restorative justice.

Sandra Pavelka, professor and director of FGCU’s Institute for Youth and Justice Studies reviews a detailed rundown of Daniel’s Neighborhood Accountability Board hearing

“I have made it my life’s work,” said Pavelka.

Pavelka is not involved in Daniel’s case, so I gave her a detailed rundown of what happened in the meeting.

“Well, it’s not a true restorative process,” said Pavelka.

She says that’s because no harm was repaired, and no lessons were learned.

“It’s really important to include those three areas, the community, the victim/survivor, and all those parties who are involved,” said Pavelka. She added, “So, hopefully with your story, we’ll be able to address that and really point those out.”

Roger Mercado, who oversees the program, would not offer any explanation for what we witnessed. No one else on the panel would talk to us either.

Jeffrey Meyers retired as Deputy Chief of Fort Myers P-D two months ago. He wasn’t involved in Daniel’s case, but says our investigation is changing how the justice system operates in Lee County.

Jeffrey Meyers, Retired Deputy Chief, Fort Myers Police Department

“It’s absolutely making a difference,” said Meyers. He added, “I can tell you here in Lee County, with judges, with people at the State Attorney’s Office, with law enforcement, with probation, everybody’s talking about, ‘What should we do? Should this happen again?’

The county said 764 children have gone before the NAB from August 2018 through July 2023.

We reached out to Marceno and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office for comment. No response.

Want to weigh in? Email me at celine.mcarthur@winknews.com

Catch up on our 22-part series here!

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