14-year-old to be tried as adult in killing of Cheltenham teacher

Laurel youth was 13 when teacher was sexually assaulted, strangled, bludgeoned

February 25, 2011|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

The young teen accused of killing a teacher at the troubled Cheltenham juvenile detention facility has been charged as an adult with first-degree murder and attempted first-degree rape. He was ordered jailed without bond Wednesday.

The charges come after Prince George's County Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr. ruled that Brian Lee Wonsom, now 14, could be tried as an adult. He was 13 at the time of the attack.

Wonsom is charged in the killing of Hannah Wheeling, 65, a teacher from Bel Air whose bludgeoned and partially clothed body was found Feb. 18, 2010, at the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County. The Laurel youth was being held there on burglary charges.

If convicted, Wonsom could be sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors have not decided whether to seek life without parole.

If the case were tried in juvenile court and Wonsom found responsible for the crime, the sentence would be served in a juvenile facility, and he would be released when he reached the age of 21.

In Nichols' ruling, which was not made public but was obtained by The Baltimore Sun, the judge expressed concerns over dangers that Wonsom might face in an adult prison. But, he wrote: "The court is simply not prepared to accept the risk of his premature release at age 21 on the chance that he would be willing to end his destructive behavior to those around him."

The judge noted that none of the juvenile facilities approached was willing to accept Wonsom. Nichols' ruling cannot be appealed before trial.

A public defender had argued during hearings that the teen should be tried as a juvenile.

"[Wonsom] is emotionally, chronologically, biologically and neurologically a 14-year-old. He is probably even younger than that when you take into consideration the problems he has," his attorney, Allen E. Wolf, said Friday.

"Putting this child in an adult prison is not suddenly going to make him an adult," Wolf said. "This is a critical time for him if he were in a juvenile facility to be rehabilitated and treated, and now that time is going to be wasted."

Prosecutors had argued that Wonsom's problems began years ago and that he had grown increasingly violent.

"This has been a tough and arduous process," said Ramon Korionoff, a spokesman for State's Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks. "We strive very strongly to hold defendants accountable. This is a necessary step to gain full justice for Hannah Wheeling."

Security lapses uncovered at the Cheltenham facility after Wheeling's death led to a staff shake-up, including the demotion of the superintendent, the firing of two staff members and the suspension of two others. The incident led to the closing of the Re-Direct program Wonsom was in, which, though considered secure, was outside Cheltenham's barbed wire.

In his ruling, Nichols wrote that he "sadly" concluded that Wonsom should be tried as an adult mostly because of the nature of the crime and public safety concerns.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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