Juvenile charged in D.C. shootings can't be tried as adult
Although it is not unusual for juveniles accused of serious crimes in the District to be prosecuted as adults, that won’t happen to the 14-year-old boy charged with murder in Tuesday’s mass shooting in the city, authorities said.
Under D.C. law, a youngster under age 15 cannot treated as an adult in the court system no matter how heinous the alleged offense.
In Maryland and Virginia, where juvenile justice statutes are less tolerant, suspects as young as 14 can be put on trial in adult court and sentenced to prison for certain crimes, including murder. In the District, however, the youth arrested Tuesday will face only limited consequences if a judge concludes that he took part in the drive-by attack that killed four people and wounded five others.
In family court, where his case will be handled, even the legal terminology is different: A trial is not a trial; it is a nonjury “fact-finding hearing” before a judge. The accused is called a “respondent,” not a defendant, and the possible verdicts are “involved” or “not involved” instead of guilty or not guilty. The sentencing is called a “disposition.”
If the boy is found culpable for murder, a family court judge cannot order confinement. A respondent can be either placed on probation or committed to the custody of the city’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. DYRS decides whether a juvenile offender should be held in a detention facility, and for how long.
The 14-year-old boy could be locked up only until he turned 21. Then the family court and DYRS would lose jurisdiction over him, and he would go free.
The U.S. attorney’s office in the District has the discretion to prosecute a 16- or 17-year-old suspect as an adult if the youth is charged with murder, armed robbery, rape or first-degree burglary. Such cases are not uncommon.
A 15-year-old suspect accused of one of those crimes must be charged initially as a juvenile, but a family court judge can transfer the case to adult court if the youth is a repeat offender who has made no progress toward rehabilitation.
After the 14-year-old boy’s arrest in Tuesday’s shootings, a family court judge noted that he had been found “involved” in nine previous crimes, including assault and theft, and had been placed in DYRS custody on six occasions. He had fled from detention at least twice and was listed as an “absconder” at the time of the drive-by attack.
A law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because juvenile cases are confidential, said that if the youngster were older, his history would make him “a prime candidate” for transfer out of family court.
But the law won’t allow it. Eight months shy of his 15th birthday, he is beyond the reach of adult justice.
-- Paul Duggan
Washington Post Editors
April 2, 2010; 8:37 AM ET
Categories: Homicide , Juvenile Justice , Paul Duggan , The District , Updates
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