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Orange County | DANA PARSONS

Judge in Canyon Case Mustn't Be Ruled by Outrage

July 20, 2001|DANA PARSONS

Whatever they pay Juvenile Court judges, it isn't enough for the decision Joy Wiesenfeld Markman has in front of her. How about the course of three young lives hanging in the balance?

Assuming Markman doesn't simply have reflexive instincts on such things (and her reputation is that of a solid, thoughtful judge), you'd imagine she's entering the sleepless-nights phase of the job.

Markman will decide in the weeks ahead whether three Orange County teens--boys ages 15, 16 and 17--should face trial in juvenile or adult court for their alleged roles in one of the more disturbing cases to come down the pike in quite a while.

Authorities arrested the three boys, along with two 19-year-olds, for the rapes of two young girls (13 and 15) and the severe beatings of their boyfriends in what must have been a night of terror in Black Star Canyon. The two older men are expected to be charged soon.

Markman, however, has the task of deciding where to try the three younger defendants. There is no single page in the criminal code that will give her the answer.

She has the sole discretion to decide, in effect, whether to give any or all of the three boys a break--not that any of them are sympathetic figures. Prosecutors want them tried as adults and have attached criminal charges that, if proved, could keep the boys in prison for much of the rest of their lives.

If tried as juveniles, however, they would automatically be released from the California Youth Authority when they reach the age of 25.

Markman, a former prosecutor who debuted as a Municipal Court judge in 1993 before being named to Superior Court in 1997, has a limited road map to guide her. She can take into account the boys' ages and what they've done with their lives up to this point. Such things as school records and personal references can be factored in.

Against that, she must consider the nature of the crime. Prosecutors haven't fully laid out the case yet but have said it involves multiple assaults on the girls and the beating of their boyfriends, including a near-fatal attack on one of them.

That's the stuff she can put her finger on, but it amounts to only part of the equation.

The rest of it involves questions she can't possibly know the answers to but which she still must assess. They are the kind of decisions that juvenile judges will tell you can weigh on their minds for years.

Are these boys incorrigible menaces who, even at their tender ages, don't deserve another shot at living in free society?

Are the deeds so atrocious, on their face, that the boys deserve no consideration?

On the other hand, would society be endangered 10 years from now if they are convicted as juveniles, then released at 25?

To many prosecutors, these are simple questions. Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Claudia Silbar says the boys should stand trial as adults. "If you look at the gravity of the offenses, the age doesn't make a difference," she said earlier this week.

To my mind, that flies in the face of what we know to be the differences between adults and teenagers. It doesn't minimize the crime; it simply acknowledges that, in most aspects of everyday life, we take teens' youth and immaturity into account.

I'll grant Silbar this: While courts normally try to do what's best for the juvenile, that's easy to do when talking about first-offense shoplifting or matters of family law. Violent crimes like this one ratchet things up dramatically.

I'd love to grace Judge Markman with the voice of certainty in this matter. I can only go this far: I could imagine sentencing a 15-year-old to a life behind bars, but it would require the most extreme of circumstances.

My guess is that on the day she decides, Markman still won't know for sure if she's right.

I only hope she won't automatically accept prosecutors' thesis. She should assess the role of each of the defendants and not take the easy way out by saying that since they were all there, they're equally guilty.

If the details bear that out, fine--add it to the mix. But that still shouldn't decide things for her.

This horrible set of circumstances handed to her now comes down to a judge, her conscience and whatever wisdom she can muster.

*

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821; by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626; or by e-mail at dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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