Teen suspects in beating case plead not guilty in Superior Court

Teens Berten Blockett and Branndon Manson watched as men and women in orange jumpsuits -- some appearing to be more than twice their age -- appeared before Senior Judge William Fleming in Richmond County Superior Court on Friday.

When it was their turn, the teens shuffled to the judge's bench, their hands and feet bound by chains.

They looked confused as they stood before the crowded courtroom to enter their pleas of not guilty on charges of aggravated battery and criminal gang activity.

Blockett shrugged when Fleming asked him the name of his attorney and struggled to maintain eye contact with the judge.

It was the first appearance by the two teens in Superior Court since Judge Willie Saunders transferred their cases out of juvenile court June 4.

Blockett and Manson-- who were 16 and 14 at the time of their arrests -- were singled out from the other three teenage defendants charged with the March beating of 16-year-old Terrence Reese because of what the judge called the "very egregious nature of this offense and the community's interest in combating a rash of teen and gang-related violence," according to his written decision. He also cited Blockett and Manson's willingness to openly admit to their "involvement in the crime."

Blockett and Manson face a sentence of one to 20 years for the aggravated battery charge and five to 15 years for the charge of criminal gang activity if convicted.

The other three defendants -- Mark Daniel Musick, 14; Ross Nipple, 15; and Jacob Plowright, 14 -- are awaiting trial in juvenile court scheduled for July. If convicted on the same charges, the greatest sentence they face is a maximum of five years in the juvenile justice system with the department deciding when they could be released or put on probation.

With the assistance of a public defense attorney, Blockett and Manson signed their pleas before they were taken out to return to the Richmond County Youth Detention Center.

At one point, an attorney asked Blockett whether he knew how to sign his name, eliciting anger from his grandmother and Manson's mother, who were in the courtroom and felt it was demeaning.

After the hearing, Tahlea Manson said she was frustrated by the whole affair and believes pressure on her son by investigators made him admit to something he did not do. The victim has said he doesn't know Manson and doesn't believe he was present during the beating. Manson's mother said she worries for his future and his chances of making it into college if he is convicted.

"These are two felony charges they are trying to stick on these kids," she said after the arraignment. "It's going to ruin my son's life."

Also present at the hearing were Reese and his mother, Taanja. She said she and her son were eager for a conclusion to the whole ordeal.

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