Thursday, January 13, 2011

How to Handle Children Accused of Murder?

Below is an excellant article comparing Ohio and Pennsylvania cases dealing with alleged killers under the age of 12. The article contrasts life with out parole and juvenile prosecutions. The article written by Megan J. Miller of the Beaver County Times is worth reading.

On the night of Jan. 2, 46-year-old Deborah McVay was found dead, lying face down on the living room floor in her home in Big Prairie, Ohio, according to police.

Her 10-year-old son, Joseph McVay, is accused of killing her with a single .22-caliber rifle shot to the head.

Deborah McVay’s brother, Tony Miller, told The Associated Press that his nephew argued with his mother just before she died because he didn’t want to carry in firewood.

Just 100 miles east and less than two years earlier, 26-year-old Kenzie Houk of New Beaver died of a shotgun blast to the head while lying in bed in her Lawrence County home on the morning of Feb. 20, 2009, according to police. Houk was 8 months’ pregnant, and her unborn son died with her.

Her fiance’s 11-year-old son, Jordan Brown, is charged with pulling the trigger.

Age 11 to life

Though the two boys are accused of similar crimes, the possible outcomes they face are vastly different.

That’s because of the juvenile crime laws of the states where they live.

Brown, now 13, is charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Houk and her baby. Pennsylvania law dictates that he be tried as an adult, despite his age, because of the nature of the charge.

If convicted as an adult, he faces life in prison.

Under Ohio law, children younger than 14 cannot be tried as adults. That means McVay, if found guilty, would be punished as a juvenile, and that punishment probably would end at age 21.

Too little or too late

In Ohio, Holmes County Prosecutor Steven Knowling said he fears the juvenile system can release an offender too soon in a case such as McVay’s.

The state relinquishes all hold on a juvenile offender once he turns 21 unless he is specially designated as a “serious youthful offender.”

Knowling said he plans to pursue that designation for McVay.

“When he hits his 21st birthday, unless he’s designated a serious youthful offender, he’s on the streets, unsupervised,” Knowling said. “This would allow the juvenile court to maintain jurisdiction over him past the age of 21.”

It would also create a way for McVay, if convicted, to be charged as an adult for any subsequent crimes, Knowling said.

In Pennsylvania, Brown waits in the Edmund L. Thomas Adolescent Center in Erie County, where he marked his 12th and 13th birthdays, while attorneys argue over whether it is fitting to treat him as an adult.

“He’s an average 12-year-old,” Jordan’s father, Chris Brown, told ABC’s Nightline in 2010. “To try to explain to a 12-year-old what the rest of your life means. It’s incomprehensible for him. He doesn’t appreciate the magnitude of what he’s facing.”

The only way Brown can be tried as a juvenile is for a court to determine that his case should be handled that way. But in March, Lawrence County Judge Domenick Motto ruled that Brown should be tried as an adult.

“This Pennsylvania law is something that definitely needs to be revised,” said David Acker, a defense attorney for Brown.

Acker and attorney Dennis Elisco appealed Motto’s ruling to the state Superior Court, which is set to hear the appeal in late January.

Deputy Attorney General Anthony Krastek of the attorney general’s Pittsburgh office is prosecuting the Brown case.

Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, refused to comment except to say he believes Motto made the right decision.

“Our position has been that the judge has acted within the law, his ruling is appropriate, and we’ll move forward from there,” Frederiksen said.

If Brown is convicted as an adult, he won’t have the option to serve his sentence in a juvenile facility, Acker said. Instead, he will be sent to a regular prison facility with adult inmates.

“I’ve known (Brown) for almost two years now, and the good thing is, I’ve seen remarkable growth in him as a person, because he’s been in a juvenile facility,” Acker said. “I can’t imagine that anyone could grow up in a jail-type facility.”

Rare acts of violence

FBI statistics show that violent crime by children younger than 12 is extremely rare.

From 2000 to 2008, there were 52 cases of murder by children under age 12 in the United States, according to data from the agency’s supplementary homicide reporting program.

In 25 of those cases, the victims were family members.

The uniqueness of these cases makes them difficult to handle, especially in a place like Big Prairie, Ohio, where violent crime of any sort is unusual, Knowling said.

“We can count on one hand the number of homicides we’ve had in decades,” he said.

Acker said it’s the first case of its kind he has seen in more than 30 years, and it has put him in a no-win situation.

“I can’t ask an 11-year-old to make adult decisions about their case, because they’re not even capable,” he said. “And you can’t ask the father to make those decisions, because the father’s not ... the one who’s going to suffer the consequences.”

Knowling said he is glad the Ohio Legislature effectively took the decision of how to charge McVay out of his hands.

“Here we’ve got a 10-year-old who, because of his age, has never been involved in anything before,” he said. “That would be a tough philosophical decision that I’m glad I don’t have to make.”

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