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Mackel Peterkin, now 20, who grew up in housing projects in Toronto's notorious Jane-Finch area, was charged with first-degree murder in the death of his friend Allen Benn.
Mackel Peterkin, now 20, who grew up in housing projects in Toronto's notorious Jane-Finch area, was charged with first-degree murder in the death of his friend Allen Benn.

Globe Focus

The silent treatment Add to ...

Mackel Peterkin had lived so long suspended between condemnation and redemption that the wait had become almost normal.

Sitting outside Toronto's main criminal courthouse under a punishing sun, the brawny, square-jawed 20-year-old complained of the heat but made no attempt to move. It felt as if the afternoon would carry on forever.

For the anxious relatives sitting beside him, eternal uncertainty seemed preferable to the likely alternative - life behind bars.

It had been two years since Mr. Peterkin was arrested for allegedly planning and carrying out the execution of his friend Allen Benn. Before that, he had been seen as one of the rare kids in his rough neighbourhood who would avoid this kind of trap.

He had grown up poor, but he had been the beneficiary of countless interventions - from government programs to private-sector philanthropy - aimed at shepherding him safely to adulthood. He wasn't a gangster; he was a decent kid. And yet he was facing 25 years to life for first-degree murder.

The jury had been deliberating for three days. In 2008, 93 per cent of homicide trials in Ontario ended with guilty verdicts.

But Mr. Peterkin was confident in spite of the odds.

"If they convict me, they have to let 10 men out of jail," he liked to say, referring to the legal principle that says it's better that 10 guilty men go free than that one innocent man be imprisoned.

In the slow stillness of the afternoon, he wrestled his arms free from his dress shirt and let it drape around his neck like a scarf. With his black pants covering black Nike Air Force Ones, he was willing to bend only so far to the formality of the court.

Then his mother's cellphone rang. It was their lawyer. The jury was coming back with a verdict. His mom grabbed him around the waist, hugging him tightly. He tried to push her aside as he gulped for words.

"Mom, it's okay, I'm coming home," he said, trying to sound brave. He strode ahead alone.

When the jurors entered the courtroom that final time, they didn't so much as glance at Mr. Peterkin, nor did they acknowledge his best friend and co-accused, Shaun Blake.

In the back row, a lawyer whispered, "They won't look at the accused. They're done. They're going down."

'A mysterious kid'

Mackel Peterkin was born on a rainy night in Scarborough in the fall of 1988. His mother's fifth child, he entered the world with six fingers on each hand. His mother asked that the two additional pinkie fingers be cut away so he wouldn't be made fun of at school.

"I said, 'This is a mysterious kid. He's a different kind,'" said his mother, Mazeline Allen.

She had grown up in Jamaica and at 14 came to Canada, where she was reunited with a mother and father she had never known. The reunion didn't go well. She didn't get along with her mom and her dad died of a stroke at 42.

Her grandmother had told her that in Canada the streets were lined with money - all you had to do was bend down to pick it up. But for Ms. Allen, Canada was a cold and lonely place, and she struggled, finding work here and there in construction. She would eventually have nine children with six different men.

She now lives in public housing in Toronto's suburban northwest at Jane Street and Finch Avenue, an area known as one of Canada's most violent neighbourhoods.

Her living-room walls are decorated with a dozen portraits of Egyptian emperor Haile Selassie, the Rastafarian king.

Ms. Allen looked fondly at a photo of Mackel in kindergarten, dressed in a red-and-black-striped cardigan. "They thought he was the child who couldn't speak. They would ask me, 'Is he dumb?' I'd say no, that's just Mackel."

His report card from that year said he was steadily gaining self-confidence. He liked math, puzzles, painting and cut-and-paste, and he wanted to be an astronaut. But his absence on nearly 20 per cent of school days (10 per cent is considered high) foretold a more difficult future.

Growing up in the Palisades apartment towers, Mr. Peterkin befriended a local kid named Shaun Blake with a life story very similar to his own. I met the two boys when I was reporting on the community in the summer of 2006. At the time, the city was gripped by the cascading toll of young, black homicide victims, a pattern that, with ebbs and flows, continues to play out today.

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