There are usually a rash of crimes committed by costumed defendants at the end of October, but a 21 year old Pitt student go into the Halloween spirit early. Jonathan Hewson is accused of trying to rob a convenience store near his apartment in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood, while wearing a Spiderman costume. When the costumed Hewson asked store clerk Bob Patel, "how much money you got?," Patel believed he was about to become a robbery victim. Patel grabbed a stun gun and chased Hewson out of the store. It was not hard for police to quickly apprehend the only guy in Pittsburgh, if not the entire state of Pennsylvania, walking around in a Spiderman costume. Hewson was lodged in Allegheny County Jail on $50,000 bail.
When this story first broke and details were scarce, my immediate thoughts were that this defendant may have some underlying mental health issues. Hewson's friends told the media that Hewson a "Spiderman enthusiast" who is fond of wearing his Spiderman costume, which is far more typical behavior for an imaginative five year old than a college student. But as details emerge, it appears that this case arose from the most common criminogenic factor underlying offenses committed by college students: alcohol.
Hewson had been out drinking with friends before putting on the Spiderman costume. He was unarmed and did not directly threaten the store clerk. I suspect that Hewson thought he was being playful with the clerk, but in his drunken state, he did not realize that a store clerk confronted late by a man in a super hero costume making a comment "like how much money you got," could easily assume that Hewson was attempting a robbery. One must also consider that the Oakland section of Pittsburgh is near some bad neighborhoods.
Hewson's thoughtless prank carries serious potential repercussions. The subsection of the Pennsylvania robbery statute most applicable to the facts of this case entails "threatening another or intentionally putting him in fear of immediate bodily injury" in the course of a theft. This crime is a second degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Even someone like Hewson, with no prior record, is normally facing at least six months in county jail if convicted of this offense, pursuant to the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines. And having a felony record could be even more devastating over the long term than a short stint in county jail.
The criminal justice system is not the only thing a college student must worry about when charged with a crime. Normally, a student charged with a crime as serious as robbery can expect to be expelled, however, I suspect that Pitt's student conduct office will take a hard look at the facts of this case before making a disciplinary decision, rather than just considering the nature of the charge itself.
Hopefully, Hewson's parents have the money to hire a good criminal defense attorney, who has some clout with the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office. My take on this case is that it is highly unlikely that Hewson was attempting to rob the convenience store. Likewise, I believe that it was not unreasonable for Mr. Patel to believe that he was about to be robbed. I believe that one possible fair resolution to this case would be to allow Mr. Hewson to plead guilty to the summary offense of disorderly conduct and pay a fine. His attorney could then file a motion to expunge his arrest record for robbery. ARD is normally out of the question for a charge like robbery, but I think it would be appropriate in this case. Successfully completing ARD would allow Mr. Hewson to escape without anything on his record.
Mr. Hewson should face some consequences for his actions, but a felony and/ or jail time would be overly harsh. The shock of being locked up and becoming a national news story in the Internet Age are punishments in and of themselves.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense lawyer in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University. Most of his clients are students at either Penn State or other schools. http://www.mattmlaw.com/Criminal-Defense-Overview/Theft-and-Property-Crimes.shtml