Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Punting time

As far as crimes go, setting an eight-year old boy afire falls toward the end of the spectrum of the worst of the worst. But what do you do when the alleged culprit is only 13? What do you do when the victim dies 14 years later from complications due to being set on fire?

You can't charge the culprit as a juvenile because the juvenile courts no longer have jurisdiction over him. But can you charge him as an adult because of his age when the victim died?

At the time of the incident state law allowed for juveniles as young as 14 to be certified to be tried as adults. Now the Supremes have said it's okay to try a ten-year old as an adult.

Yes, now that Donald Collins is an adult he understands the consequences of setting a person on fire. He's old enough to appreciate the nature of the crime. But we can't transfer that maturity to the time he committed the crime.

Our juvenile courts were set up because someone realized that children aren't as mature as adults and that the punishments meted out to adults weren't appropriate for a child. Yes, it sometimes meant that someone might walk away with a much lighter sentence for the same criminal act as an adult. There is no question that a person is just as dead whether his killer is a juvenile or an adult. There is no question that the family of the victim suffers the same loss regardless of the age of the killer. And no punishment can ever heal the loss.

Up in Montgomery County the County Attorney asked Attorney General Greg Abbott whether or not prosecutors could charge Donald Collins as an adult for the murder of Robbie Middleton. The county attorney, David Walker, was concerned that Mr. Collins would claim that trying him as an adult for the murder would violate the Constitution's ban on ex post facto laws.

Much to Mr. Walker's dismay, however, the Attorney General decided that "[a] county or district attorney's determination regarding the initiation of further proceedings falls within in the scope of prosecutorial discretion." In other words, Mr. Abbott punted.

Abbott Opinion No. 967

Of course that's just what Montgomery County officials did, too. They were hoping that Mr. Abbott would bail them out of having to make the call. If the AG said they couldn't do it, well, they had their political cover. They could call a press conference and announce that, but for the Attorney General, they would prosecute Mr. Collins as an adult. Or, if the AG told them it was okay, they could look like they were tough on crime by formally filing charges.

But now Mr. Walker and the Montgomery County District Attorney, Bret Ligon, are going to have to make the decision themselves.

As badly as Mr. Walker and Mr. Ligon want to do something, there is nothing they can do in this matter. It doesn't matter that Mr. Collins is an adult now. It doesn't matter that Mr. Collins has spent time in the penitentiary for his actions as an adult. The fact remains that he was still a child when he committed the crime and a child's brain doesn't work like the brain of an adult.

Sometimes there's nothing you can do. Unfortunately, it's situations like this that lead to bad laws and ill-advised opinions.

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