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California and the West

Youths Seldom Find Leniency in Adult Court

Justice: Earlier cases suggest that the accused Santana High killer will not benefit from his age--15--or boyish appearance. Juries can even be hostile, lawyers say.

March 26, 2001|KEN ELLINGWOOD and TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN DIEGO — In a San Diego County courtroom packed with more than 60 spectators and reporters earlier this month, the person who looked most out of place was the one all had come to see: a doe-eyed 15-year-old boy with the tousled hair of a TV kid brother.

Charles Andrew Williams, accused in the March 5 shooting rampage at Santana High School, joins a relatively new but growing class of murder defendants in California: children younger than 16 who are charged as adults.

They are often, like Williams, tender-faced enough to tug on the heart of any juror. Still too young to carry driver's licenses, they have been known to break down sobbing at the sight of their mothers.

But if history is any guide, Williams' age and appearance will matter far less in adult court than the gravity of the crimes of which he is accused. And, say lawyers who have handled such cases, defending even an unimposing young murder suspect can be more difficult than representing a grown-up defendant.

"It's going to be tough," said Yuba County Public Defender Debra Givens, who represents a 14-year-old boy facing murder charges.

Williams is charged with killing two fellow students and wounding 13 other people during the campus attack. His lawyers delayed entering a plea, and now say they will challenge the filing of adult charges under Proposition 21 as unconstitutional. The measure, approved by voters last year, makes it easier for prosecutors to try juveniles in adult court for serious crimes. One provision already has been struck down by an appellate court.

No Death Penalty

Putting 14- and 15-year-olds in the defendant's chair is still fairly new in California's adult courts. A 1995 change in the law lowered from 16 to 14 the age at which defendants can be tried as adults but, in the days before Proposition 21, left it to juvenile court judges to send cases to adult court.

There is one concession to age: Fourteen- and 15-year-olds aren't subject to the death penalty or life in prison without parole. Other states have harsher rules. A 14-year-old in Florida was given a life term without parole last week for killing a 6-year-old in 1999.

Since the California age threshold was lowered, at least 44 youths have been convicted in adult court of murders committed while they were 14 or 15, according to the California Youth Authority. The cases of 121 others were settled in juvenile court, where the harshest possible punishment is, with few exceptions, incarceration in a CYA facility until age 25.

California jurors have shown little reluctance to convict the youngest murder suspects in adult courts. Acquittals are virtually unheard of--a sign, perhaps, that only the most egregious cases have made it to adult court.

A Sacramento jury last month took just 90 minutes to convict a 15-year-old boy of first-degree murder in a stabbing case that had been shifted from Sutter County because of intense publicity. No one spoke on his behalf at a later hearing as the plump-faced killer, Thomas A. Preciado, was sentenced to 25 years to life.

Minimum mandatory sentences mean juveniles tried in adult court get the same treatment as adults, experts say.

"Kids who get convicted of murder or a serious crime tend to receive the same amount of time as an adult counterpart," said Dan Macallair of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.

Prosecutors contend that is how it should be, and California voters, having supported moves to treat youthful offenders as adults for certain crimes, seem to agree. Paul Cruser, a Navy petty officer who turned up at the El Cajon courthouse to watch Williams' arraignment March 7 on closed-circuit television, put it in plain terms: "At 15, you should know right from wrong. You should know what a gun is going to do to somebody." The arraignment was continued.

Indeed, one defense attorney believes that jurors, influenced by news media attention to juvenile crime, are actually hostile to young defendants.

"It's really an odd phenomenon. Juries, it's my experience, tend to fear other people's children but not their own," said Mary Ellen Attridge, a San Diego attorney who has defended children. "There is a paranoia toward juvenile defendants. People fear them."

Defending young suspects can be exceptionally difficult for other reasons too, say juvenile justice experts and defense lawyers. Often, these cases bristle with notoriety because of the crime, such as the killing of family members, or the defendant's age. And defendants' immaturity can mean they are ill-equipped to fully understand their deeds or put into adult terms the reasons behind them.

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