A judge decided Monday that a 17-year-old high school honor student should be tried as a juvenile rather than as an adult in the pipe bomb explosion that killed his best friend and rocked the affluent San Diego neighborhood of Del Cerro.
Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell, sitting in Juvenile Court, ruled that Daniel Smith, a narrow-shouldered, mop-haired youth enrolled in advanced physics and calculus classes at the University of San Diego High School, had fallen under the spell of a more sophisticated youth who was "obsessed with explosives and firearms."
McConnell said that Michael Kevin Ham, 17, who was killed in the predawn blast July 29, had been the ringleader in the bomb-making expedition and Smith had literally just gone along for the ride. For that reason, McConnell found that Smith had not shown the "criminal sophistication" necessary to be tried as an adult.
"Danny Smith didn't know when to say no to a friend he liked and respected," McConnell said.
Smith is charged with six felony counts involving the making, transporting and detonating of explosive devices, although he is not charged in the death of Ham, who was killed when the bomb exploded.
Friends Seek to Help
A high school counselor, two Boy Scout leaders, a probation officer, a psychiatrist and three psychologists had all urged that Smith be tried as a juvenile and not as an adult, as requested by the San Diego County district attorney's office.
They portrayed Smith as an intelligent, studious youth, respectful of authority, active in his church and only two merit badges short of becoming an Eagle Scout.
"He is a good young man who made a stupid mistake," scoutmaster Doug Anderson said in a document submitted to the court. "He was apparently caught up in the mind-set that some young people fall prey to--a macho , paramilitary curiosity about weapons."
Defense attorney Paul Danielsen called Ham, also an honor student at University High, a "modern-day Rambo," and noted that police found 47 publications involving weapons and explosives in his bedroom, as well as 26 pounds of chemicals, numerous shotgun shells, a silencer and a sales receipt for a $518.34 mail-order AK-47 assault rifle.
The only weapons or bomb ingredients found at the Smith house were brought there by Ham, the son of a Poway orthopedic surgeon, the defense attorney said.
"Danny is shy and a little passive," Danielsen said. "In the grand scheme, he was a follower. Kevin was the leader. Kevin Ham had a fascination with bombs, firearms, and explosives. He thought he was a modern-day Rambo."
Parents Out of Town
The night before the explosion, Ham had brought the bomb ingredients to Smith's house for assembling because Smith's parents were out of town, Danielsen said. He quoted from Smith's interview with a probation officer in which Smith said: "I remember worrying about what he (Ham) was doing in the kitchen but I just kind of went along."
McConnell also ruled that Smith, who lives in San Carlos, can be released from Juvenile Hall to return to classes at University High. According to testimony, Smith has a 3.5 grade point average, an IQ of 136, and has taken enough advanced classes to begin college as a sophomore after graduating from high school.
On the nationwide Scholastic Aptitude Test, he was listed in the 99th percentile in mathematics, and the 97th percentile in verbal skills. He was also a candidate for employee of the month at a Jack in the Box restaurant before the explosion.
Smith's father, Donald Smith, a loan officer on medical leave from Home Savings & Loan, pleaded with McConnell to let his son stand trial as a juvenile. As a juvenile, he faces a maximum penalty of incarceration with the California Youth Authority until age 21; as an adult he could have been sent to state prison for more than 10 years.
"We love him very much," his father said. "We want him back with us so he can continue his schooling and make something of himself."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Amador had argued that the ferocious power of the explosive devices and weapons found in the car with Ham, Smith and a third youth, not charged in the case, showed the "criminal sophistication" that qualifies Smith to be treated as an adult.
Bomb Burst in Car
Ham was killed when a bomb exploded as the boys' car drove along Madra Avenue near Mission Trails Park. Ham had been holding the bomb out a window when it exploded; both of his hands were blown off and a hole was blown in his chest. Smith got glass shards in his legs from the blast.
Found in and around the car were the AK-47 and 86 rounds of ammunition, a BB gun, two BB rifles and a baseball bat. Found at Smith's house were the makings of two pipe bombs, including a clock for possible use in making a time bomb, Amador said.
The bomb that exploded had 100 feet of wire fuse and a remote detonator. The three youths had failed in an effort to detonate the bomb and were driving home when it exploded unexpectedly.
Smith is charged with five counts involving the July 29 tragedy and one count in connection with a July 21 explosion that damaged a car on Wandermere Court in San Carlos. Even though prosecutors sought to have Smith tried as an adult, Amador told McConnell that Smith was not responsible for Ham's death.
"Kevin Ham was, in fact, responsible for his own death," he said.
Smith had been kept at Juvenile Hall since his arrest Aug. 18. He will now be on "house arrest" that will allow him out of his home only long enough to attend school or go to work.
The law gives five criteria for deciding whether a juvenile can be tried as an adult: the degree of criminal sophistication involved; the chance for rehabilitation; the defendant's criminal history; the seriousness of the crime and previous attempts by the Juvenile Court to rehabilitate the youth.
McConnell set Sept. 24 for a hearing on the readiness of opposing lawyers to proceed to trial.