Youth-crime cases create dilemma in court system

Choices: Judges face agonizing decisions over whether teen-agers charged with serious crimes should be tried as adults or juveniles.

November 05, 2003|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Charged as an adult with first-degree murder, 15-year-old Eric Brown will appear today for a critical hearing that will determine whether he could spend the rest of his life in prison or have his case transferred to the more lenient juvenile courts.

Defense lawyers will argue that Brown should be moved to juvenile court because he has a lengthy history of mental and emotional problems, ranging from illiteracy to potential lead poisoning, and lived in wretched conditions at home. The teen-ager, who was age 14 at the time of the killing, needs treatment, not punishment, they will argue.

Prosecutors will counter that Brown should remain in the adult system because the teen is charged with committing a heinous crime - the coldblooded shooting death of a man he didn't know. Arrested at least nine times as a juvenile and accused of often skipping school and fleeing group homes and other programs designed to help him, Brown doesn't deserve another shot at rehabilitation, prosecutors will argue.

The hearing is one of about 200 argued every year in Baltimore that carry an enormous consequence - whether a teen-ager charged as an adult with a serious crime gets another chance at being rehabilitated or faces the possibility of hard prison time.

Such cases pose dilemmas for prosecutors and defense lawyers, but especially for judges.

By switching a youthful offender accused of serious crime to the juvenile system - a process called transferring - judges are giving those teen-agers a chance to turn around their lives. In doing so, though, judges know that a youth will spend at most a few years, even as little as a few months, in custody, and be released to perhaps commit another violent crime.

On the other hand, judges can keep teen-agers in adult court where they face a potential prison sentence. If convicted, youths will face harsher conditions behind bars and will have an adult conviction that will dog them for life.

It "is probably one of the most agonizing decisions a judge can have," said Baltimore Circuit Judge David W. Young. "You just always wonder if you are making the right decision. You don't have a crystal ball."

Prosecutors say that about 400 youths are arrested on adult charges in Baltimore each year, and about 200 seek hearings for transfers to juvenile court.

Conversely, prosecutors can seek to send teen-agers charged as juveniles to the adult system. About 275 of those - mostly chronic offenders or those who are facing other adult charges - are moved to the adult courts each year.

Under state law, a judge has the authority to transfer most youths charged as adults to the juvenile system. The judge weighs five factors: age (the youth must be younger than 18 at the time of the crime); the mental and physical condition of the youth; the likelihood that the youth will be rehabilitated in the juvenile system; the nature of the offense; and the threat to public safety.

It remains uncertain how Circuit Judge Lynn K. Stewart will decide the fate of Brown, whose lengthy history of juvenile arrests and other problems have been profiled in The Sun. Brown is accused of fatally shooting Derick L. Carmon, 24, on April 29. Police said that Brown - who had never met Carmon until moments before the shooting - was summoned as muscle to help evict the older man from a Northeast Baltimore apartment.

At a hearing in September, Stewart heard part of Brown's motion to be sent to juvenile court but wanted more information about potential juvenile treatment sites from defense lawyers before making a decision. The hearing was rescheduled for last month and then postponed again until today.

That day in September, Stewart heard seven other cases of youths seeking juvenile jurisdiction. The judge sent two of those to the juvenile system and kept the other five in the adult courts. The seven juveniles, all boys ages 15 to 17, were charged with serious crimes, such as attempted murder, handgun possession or assault. All had serious school disciplinary problems and had been expelled from at least one school. Most had used marijuana and consumed alcohol. At home, most were being raised by a single parent or relative. Their fathers played little, if any, roles in their lives. Three of the boys had children.

For several, it was not their first time in an adult courtroom.

One, who had been arrested 15 times as a youth, had been charged previously as an adult with murder and acquitted.

Another had been arrested as a juvenile under seven aliases, prosecutors said, and had been arrested seven times on adult charges of handgun possession, first-degree assault and drug distribution during a two-year period. He was appearing before Stewart on accusations of opening fire and wounding a man sitting in a car.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.