GOUVERNEUR — In the year since Treyanna N. Summerville’s community first gathered in vigil, the Gouverneur Village Park has quieted.
Treyanna’s Gouverneur High School peers have graduated, and a new class of seniors will walk the stage Friday night. Silent marchers and reverberant demonstrators have cried for justice. COVID-19 pandemic directives have been heightened and scaled back. Murder and manslaughter cases against two of Treyanna’s family members are still pending.
“Sometimes things still don’t seem real,” 2020 GHS graduate Alexis M. Stevens said.
Ms. Stevens studied criminal justice with Treyanna through the St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES program and said she finds herself, especially this month, thinking about her classmate’s smile. Last week, she wrote journal entries about her friend, whose picture is secured on her bedroom wall.
“In this year, I’ve learned how to deal with it,” Ms. Stevens said. “Because I know it’s something we have to live with forever.”
One summer ago
On the morning of June 22, 2020, Treyanna was reported dead inside her home at 135 Rowley St. Almost 24 hours before the St. Lawrence County District Attorney’s Office confirmed Treyanna’s identity to the public and announced the beginning of a homicide investigation, Gouverneur already knew who died.
Treyanna was 18 years old, a GHS senior, a track athlete, a daughter, a sister, a friend.
A 13-year-old girl, confirmed by family as Treyanna’s half sister, was arrested on the afternoon of June 22 at the state police barracks in Gouverneur, 1005 Route 11. She was charged with second-degree murder as a juvenile offender and arraigned in county court.
Nearly a month later, on July 15, the girls’ mother was charged with second-degree manslaughter for allegedly contributing “substantially” to the malnourishment and assault of Treyanna between June 18 and 22, according to the criminal complaint initially filed by state police in Gouverneur Town Court. Lashanna N. Charlton, 38 at the time, lived at the two-story Rowley Street residence with her daughters and husband Rhodney A. Charlton, though Mr. Charlton, stepfather to Treyanna, was stationed at Fort Drum and periodically out of the area on military assignment.
A year later, neither relative has been indicted but both cases remain pending in the county, District Attorney Gary M. Pasqua said.
Mrs. Charlton is being represented by Melissa K. Swartz, of Green & Brenneck, Syracuse. The 13-year-old and her family have retained Syracuse-area attorney Robert E. Moran, a former assistant district attorney for Onondaga County. They declined to comment on their cases this week.
The criminal complaint against Mrs. Charlton alleges she failed to seek medical assistance while Treyanna was “unconscious as a result of the malnourishment and assault,” therefore demonstrating a knowing disregard for her life and creating “substantial and unjustifiable risk” of Treyanna’s injuries leading to her death. An autopsy was scheduled in Albany last summer, but an official cause of death has not been publicly released.
Mrs. Charlton voluntarily turned herself in after processing arrangements were made through her attorney. She was held in county jail on $25,000 cash bail or $50,000 bond, and one day after she entered the facility in Canton, bond was posted and she was released at 4:42 p.m. July 16, according to jail records.
Only a few hours after news of Treyanna’s death swept the town, population 7,000, some 300 people circled the gazebo at the center of the village, marking the start of a long three weeks of mourning and rallying. About 50 students and family members revisited the vigil site after GHS graduation on June 26. Another 200 people silently marched through the village on June 27, and 50 more rallied on July 1 in Canton, outside the county Department of Social Services building, 6 Judson St.
Treyanna’s stepbrother and father made it to the north country last year, each traveling from out of state to be with the community and host a July 11 celebration of life at the Gouverneur Community Center.
Gouverneur residents and Treyanna’s friends told the Times about the abuse and neglect they suspected and reported Treyanna to have endured in her home. Treyanna’s older stepbrother Tae’von Isiah Samuels Charlton, who also identifies as Isiah Samuels, recounted years of physical and psychological abuse he endured from Mrs. Charlton while living at 135 Rowley St.
The five-member Charlton-Summerville family moved to the north country from Georgia around 2011, according to Mr. Samuels. He lived at the house with his stepmother Mrs. Charlton, father Mr. Charlton, Treyanna and their 13-year-old half sister.
Mr. Samuels, then 18, left the home in 2015 after he said Mrs. Charlton struck him in the head with a frying pan, just one of multiple blows he described receiving over a period of years. The Gouverneur Police Department has records of more than two dozen calls related to the family at 135 Rowley St., though the department has declined to disclose those records to the Times.
Friends, classmates and community members said they observed signs of distress over four years and believe Treyanna to have been the target of physical and psychological abuse allegedly perpetrated by her mother. Student and parent concerns regarding Treyanna and her family were also brought to the attention of Gouverneur Central School District employees.
As a 13-year-old charged with a violent felony, Treyanna’s half sister faces a process akin to one concerning an adult defendant, though the state Office of Children and Family Services is involved.
OCFS groups juvenile justice cases into four categories of defendants: adolescent offenders, juvenile delinquents, juvenile offenders and 16- and 17-year-olds charged with Vehicle and Traffic Law misdemeanors.
The state’s Raise the Age legislation, phased in through 2018 and 2019, changed the age of prosecuting a child as an adult to 18. The legislation established the adolescent offender category, as well as a youth part of adult criminal court where adolescent offender cases are to be heard, generally by Family Court judges or judges with special training in youth development.
When charged with misdemeanors, 16- and 17-year-olds are considered juvenile delinquents and processed in Family Court, unless the misdemeanor is covered under Vehicle and Traffic Law, in which case, a teen’s VTL misdemeanor may be processed in local criminal court.
Juvenile offenders are different altogether: 13- to 15-year-olds charged with “a handful of the most serious offenses in penal law,” according to Martin R. Feinman, director of delinquency training for the Juvenile Rights Practice of the Legal Aid Society in New York City. Other offenses that could qualify a young teen as a juvenile offender include certain felony kidnapping, arson and sexual assault charges.
Mr. Feinman has been with Legal Aid for 35 years, mostly working in the Juvenile Rights Practice and as a criminal defense attorney. He earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees, as well as his Juris Doctorate, from Syracuse University, and previously directed the adolescent unit at an upstate psychiatric facility.
For a child accused of killing a sibling, Mr. Feinman said, there’s added trauma to the already traumatic loss.
“I mean, who’s there for her? What kind of support is she getting? What is it that she’s living with?” he said. “I can imagine that it’s extraordinarily frightening and terrifying for her.”
Juvenile offenders who end up being detained while a case is pending may spend time in one of the state’s OCFS juvenile detention facilities specifically designed for children.
St. Lawrence County had one juvenile offender admitted to the OCFS in 2020, for a total of 16 days in the second quarter, according to the agency’s annual report. Outside of New York City, 73 kids were admitted to facilities as juvenile offenders in 2020, with 15 still being held by the end of the year. Statewide including city data, the total figure was 177 new admissions, with 45 remaining at year’s end.
An adult convicted of second-degree manslaughter, meaning a person “recklessly caused the death of another person,” or “caused or aided another person to commit suicide,” may face up to 15 years in prison. Mrs. Charlton was charged under subdivision one of the state penal law describing second-degree manslaughter for “reckless cause.”
In New York, a second-degree murder conviction of a juvenile defendant, under the age of 14 at the time of the offense, carries an indeterminate sentence of a minimum of five to nine years and a maximum of life imprisonment. A second-degree murder charge is levied when a person is believed to have caused the death of someone after intending to do so or “recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person, and thereby causes the death of another person.”
With no indictments, pre-trial processes can’t begin. It’s unclear when and how the cases might proceed.
With little movement in the cases through a year of grief, Emily B. Burgess is wondering whether her friend is again being ignored.
“I’m getting anxious, and I’m not the only one getting anxious,” Ms. Burgess said this week. “I’m really hoping something good comes out of this, because everything feels bad right now.”
Ms. Burgess finished her first year as a SUNY Canton nursing student this spring. With her classmates, she helped organize last summer’s vigils and efforts to establish a GHS scholarship in Treyanna’s name. Remembering Treyanna as a kind and truthful friend and remembering Treyanna’s suffering is a burdensome balance.
Treyanna was a dedicated student and track athlete when she first arrived at the high school as a first-year student five years ago. Ms. Burgess and a few of Treyanna’s other friends recalled her earning high grades, excelling at track meets and generally enjoying school.
At a middle school track and field meet held at Potsdam High School in May 2015, Treyanna placed first of 11 in the 55-meter hurdles, fifth of 18 in the long jump and third in a 4x100-meter team relay with three Gouverneur teammates.
After her first year of high school, Treyanna changed, her vibrancy diminishing.
Some good, Ms. Burgess said, might be realized if the adults in the room learn to do more of one thing: listen. Though mandated reports were made by the school district regarding concerns for Treyanna at home, police responded to the home and Child Protective Services was called, it wasn’t enough, she said.
A few classmates plan to light candles in the park and eat cheesecake together tonight. Treyanna, who would have turned 20 on Nov. 2, was an anime fan. She was considering joining the U.S. Air Force or continuing her criminal justice studies in college.
Ms. Burgess said moving forward is possible in some ways — starting nursing school, getting a summer job, reconnecting with her high school friends to remember Treyanna.
But there is no “moving on,” she said, adding: “I can’t say there’s ever going to be a time when we move on.”