SAN DIEGO — Fourteen-year-old Tony Hicks is too young for a driver's license, too young to view an R-rated movie by himself, but now he's facing a 25-years-to-life sentence if convicted in the ambush slaying of a pizza deliveryman.
Hicks, who has admitted shooting his victim with a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun, has become the youngest defendant in California history to be looking at hard-core prison time.
A new state law went into effect in January that lowered from 16 to 14 the age at which boys and girls can be prosecuted and sentenced as adults for violent crimes such as murder, rape and armed robbery.
Some juvenile-crime experts believe 14- and 15-year-olds are simply too young to face adult consequences for their actions, no matter how serious.
The prosecutor in San Diego disagrees.
"His age doesn't make the victim any less dead," Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Deddeh said of Hicks, who did not look a day older than his 14 years when he was arraigned this week. "His age doesn't make the crime any less serious. This was a senseless and callous murder of a real nice college kid who did nothing to provoke the attack and was just trying to earn a living."
San Diego County Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst said, "No community can celebrate prosecuting 14-year-olds as adults for murder, but it's something we have to do because of the types of crimes they're committing. I don't know that there's an alternative but to hold them responsible by adult standards."
Hicks' attorney, saying he is going to challenge the constitutionality of the new law, refused to enter a plea for his client at the arraignment. Municipal Court Judge Frank Brown entered a not-guilty plea on Hicks' behalf and a preliminary hearing was scheduled for June 12.
During an earlier hearing to determine whether Hicks would be tried as an adult, the youth admitted firing the gun, but said he was acting under the influence of an 18-year-old accomplice.
The new state law's only concessions to teen-age murderers allows convicted youths to spend the first years of their incarceration in the California Youth Authority before being transferred to prison. In addition, they cannot be prosecuted on capital charges--even if, as in Hicks' case of allegedly lying in wait, the charge could bring the death penalty to an adult.
California's law took effect at a time when the number of children committing murder is ballooning around the nation. In 1993, 16% of all people arrested for murder were juveniles--an increase of 45% from the number of juveniles who were seized on that charge in 1989, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice.
Last year, 250 juveniles were committed to the California Youth Authority for murder--including one 12-year-old, 11 13-year-olds, 24 14-year-olds and 63 15-year-olds. Convicted murderers are released from the CYA when they turn 25.
Hicks was one of three 14-year-olds who, with 18-year-old Antoine Pittman, schemed to steal some pizza after an evening of smoking marijuana, Deddeh said.
After scouting the neighborhood for an address where the pizza could be delivered, a teen-age girl in the group--who was not implicated in the crime--ordered the pizza from DeMille's Pizza, a popular mom-and-pop shop. She gave the address, and the four teen-agers waited across the street.
Tariq Khamisa, a student at San Diego State, drove up in his Volkswagen with the pizza but couldn't find the apartment. From across the street, two of the 14-year-olds stayed hidden while Pittman and Hicks approached Khamisa, with Hicks brandishing the weapon, according to Deddeh.
The apparent plan, Deddeh said, was for Pittman and Hicks to distract Khamisa while the other boys ran across the street and snatched the pizza. But by then, Khamisa already had given up looking for the apartment and was putting the pizza back in his car.
"Tony walked up, got within three feet of Tariq, put the 9-millimeter in his face and demanded the pizza," Deddeh said. Khamisa defiantly got in his car, even as Hicks followed him and continued to point the weapon at him.
"Tariq started to back up and was rolling up his window when he was shot by Hicks," Deddeh said. The bullet ripped through his aorta and he died at the scene.
The slaying was an aberration for the North Park neighborhood, old-timers there say. Once a middle-class neighborhood of single-family homes, the area now is studded with apartments; only recently have gang members begun to swagger through the area.
Based on tips, Pittman, Hicks and the other two 14-year-olds were arrested within days. Pittman has been bound over for a murder trial because of his alleged complicity in the crime.
Because Hicks allegedly was the actual shooter, prosecutors wanted him to stand trial in adult criminal court, and last week, Superior Court Judge Federico Castro agreed after a monthlong hearing.
That decision was made after a review of five criteria; meeting any one of them would have put Hicks in adult court.