Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How a 10-year-old gets charged as an adult.

The ABA Journal has an article about a shocking crime: a 10-year-old boy in Northeastern Pennsylvania has been charged with beating a 90-year-old woman to death.

The Scranton-Times Tribune story of the incident is here. Allegedly the boy became angry at the woman over the way she responded to the question and he hooked a cane around her neck, held her down and punched her several times in the throat and stomach. If true (and the boy apparently confessed to the police), it is a revolting crime and one wonders how a child could have done such a thing.  According to WNEP, the boy is being held at the Wayne County Correctional Facility under 24-hour care.  Because the correctional facility is for adults, the boy is "being kept separate from the population."

The Associated Press story on the incident mentions that the boy's mother brought him to the Pennsylvania State Police after the 90-year-old was found dead by her caretaker (who is also the boy's grandfather).  The boy was "advised of his rights and interviewed" by the State Police. One might assume that the boy was taught that the police are trustworthy and people the boy should approach if he is in trouble. Whatever the merits of that assumption, the AP reports that the boy told the state police "I killed that lady."

The ABA story mentioned that the boy was being charged as an adult "because there is no provision in state law for charging a juvenile with homicide." This makes it sound like the Pennsylvania Legislature has been asleep in the switch.  

However, the Juvenile Law Center phrases it somewhat differently here.  The Center suggests that instead of failing to protect its citizens from juvenile murderers, the Pennsylvania Legislature decided that some crimes are so awful that children have to be tried as adults. These include any child charged with murder "no matter how young." The list also includes kids over the age of 15 who use a deadly weapon or has previously been convicted robbery, robbery of a motor vehicle, aggravated assault, voluntary manslaughter, kidnapping, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, or attempt, conspiracy or solicitation of any of those crimes.  

According to the Center, the only way for a child accused to an adult crime to have the case  be heard in juvenile court is for the child's lawyers to request a transfer. In considering whether to transfer the case, the court looks at: (1) the age of the child; (2) the type of crime; (3) the range of sentences available in adult and juvenile court; (4) the impact of the crime on the victim and the community, and (5) whether the child is able to be rehabilitated in the juvenile system. The Center doesn't mention the availability of rehabilitation in the adult system.

Presumably, the first and fifth factors favor putting the case in juvenile court while the second and fourth factors favor keeping the case in adult court.  As to the third factor, the Center says that if the case stays in adult court, then the boy will receive an adult sentence. The boy is charged with "criminal homicide" The Pennsylvania criminal homicide statute is here. The statute contains three kinds of murder and two types of manslaughter. First degree murder is the intentional killing of another person. The press reports do not make it seem like the boy intended to kill the woman. Second degree murder is felony murder, i.e., a killing while committing a felony. That also does not seem to apply here. Third degree murder is all other kinds of murder (knowing, reckless, or negligent causing the death of another human being). The boy's alleged actions certainly could fit that definition. Voluntary manslaughter is the intentional or knowing killing of a person when the defendant is acting under a sudden and intense provocation by the victim. The boy apparently said that he was angry about how the victim responded to a question. That doesn't sound like a serious provocation but the press reports do not provide a lot of detail about the question or the response. Involuntary manslaughter is the result of doing an unlawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner that causes the death of another.  Perhaps this fits the definition of what the boy allegedly did since punching another person is an unlawful act and it resulted in the victim's death.

The adult sentences for the two possible crimes are quite different. Third degree murder is punishable by a sentence of ten to twenty years in prison. The high end of that range would be twice what the boy has been alive so far. The punishment for involuntary manslaughter is two and one-half to five years in prison.

It is hard to know what to make of this story.  Obviously, one's heart goes out to the victim and their family. But what thoughts should one have about the boy? For a lot of parents it is very difficult to read about crimes committed against children because they imagine the crime being committed against their child. I am not sure the same sort of empathy gets triggered when a child is accused of a crime. Instead, I suspect most parents find themselves asking how such a thing could occur and wondering what is wrong with the child and maybe wondering what parental failure enabled the situation. Perhaps this difference can be explained by the difference between being the victim of a crime and the perpetrator of one.

What do you think Mr. Torvik? Where should the boy be tried? Is the Pennsylvania policy of starting the boy out in adult court with the possibility of moving the child back to juvenile court the right policy? Does a Miranda warning mean anything to a 10-year-old? What is solitary confinement in an adult jail like for a 10-year-old? Should we be disquieted by the idea of such a young child being held in adult jail?

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