Saturday, October 29, 2011

Murder case involving teen highlights juvenile system's process

It's not often that a juvenile delinquency hearing receives widespread attention, but on Monday, local eyes will be on the Mecklenburg courtroom where a 15-year-old accused of killing his father and stepmother will learn whether he'll be prosecuted as an adult.
During a recent seminar for local court and media representatives, Chief District Court Judge Lisa Bell led a discussion about the juvenile court system, which differs significantly from adult court in its procedures.
The laws that govern juvenile hearings are outlined in the N.C. General Statutes in Chapter 7B, which is known as the “Juvenile Code.”
The seminar came a month after a 15-year-old called 911 and said he’d shot his father and stepmother, police said. When officers arrived at the teen’s southwest Mecklenburg home, they found 43-year-old Christian Hans Liewald, and his 24-year-old wife, Cassie Meghan Buckaloo, dead. The teen now faces two counts of first-degree murder.
If someone younger than age 16 is accused of a crime, he is sent to juvenile court. But if he is accused of a felony and is at least 13 years old, he’s eligible to be tried as an adult, according to law.
Some differences between juvenile and adult courts are as simple as the legal terminology used. For example, juveniles are “adjudicated delinquent” when they’re found guilty of a crime rather than “convicted.”
But cases that begin in juvenile court don’t necessarily end there.
Prosecution as an adult or juvenile?
The teen accused of killing his father and stepmother is scheduled to appear in juvenile court Monday for a probable cause hearing, where prosecutors will try to convince a judge that there is probable cause the teen committed the crimes and that the killings were first-degree murders. If the judge agrees, the case will automatically be transferred to Superior Court, and the teen will be prosecuted as an adult.
But if the judge finds that the evidence presented supports lesser charges of second-degree murder or manslaughter, the judge will decide whether he should be prosecuted as a juvenile or an adult.
If prosecuted as an adult, the teen could spend the rest of his life in prison.
He isn’t eligible for the death penalty. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that it’s unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on someone who committed a capital offense when he was younger than 18.
In a previous Mecklenburg juvenile court hearing, prosecutors have said Liewald and Buckaloo were killed in an “ambush attack” in which the teen planned to kill his father so he could run away to Mexico. But the teen’s attorney has said he is a battered child who experienced physical abuse since infancy.
The teen has been in a juvenile detention facility since he was taken into custody. No bail or bond is set in juvenile cases, but detention hearings are typically held every 10 days when a juvenile is being held in custody. If the case is transferred to adult court, then a bond will be set.
Open or closed hearings?
Another legal issue that has arisen in the case is that of openness.
At the teen’s first court appearance in September, his attorney made a motion to close the courtroom to everyone but family, arguing that making the case public could affect the teen's mental health and damage his reputation and future.
Although the courts take precautions to protect the confidentiality of juveniles, delinquency cases are presumed open to the public.
To close a juvenile delinquency hearing, the court must evaluate the circumstances of the case and find “good cause” for the closure, according to state law.
The five factors examined are:
1) The nature of the allegations against the juvenile. (Is the child accused of a misdemeanor or a serious offense, such as murder?)
2) The juvenile’s age and maturity. (Is the juvenile a 9-year-old or a 15-year-old? Does the child have a developmental disability?)
3) The benefit to the juvenile of confidentiality. (How could an open hearing affect the juvenile now or in the future?)
4) The benefit to the public of an open hearing.
5) The extent to which an open hearing will compromise the confidentiality of the juvenile’s file. (Are private medical or mental health records likely to be revealed?)
State law prohibits authorities from disclosing the juvenile’s identity. But that law does not apply to the media. Although the name of teen accused of killing Liewald and Buckaloo has been widely reported, police have not publicly identified him. The Observer has not named him because the case remains in juvenile court.
Media representatives objected to the motion to close the hearing, and Observer attorney Jon Buchan addressed the court. He pointed out that the accused teen is 15, not far from the age at which he’d be tried as an adult.
A judge denied the motion to close the hearing, saying that the teen is facing serious charges and that his confidentiality is no longer an issue because of widespread media coverage.
The teen's attorney or prosecutors could ask for future hearings in juvenile court to be closed.
Check the Charlotte Observer on Monday for updates from the hearing.
--Meghan Cooke