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Ventura County

No Easy Call Deciding Young Killer's Fate

Court: For transient's death, judge could send 15-year-old to hardened youth authority or a school for troubled boys.

June 02, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What to do with Rocky Mattley?

At age 15, he is a convicted killer who participated in the beachside slaying of a homeless man. But he is also a baby-faced boy with no prior criminal record.

Prosecutors want him locked up for as long as juvenile law allows. Defense lawyers want him sent to a private school for troubled teens.

The decision rests with Ventura County Superior Court Judge John E. Dobroth, who is expected to hear testimony Monday from the boy's psychologist before handing down a sentence. It's no easy call.

"It's a heck of a first offense," said Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson. "With a juvenile defendant, one of the goals is to rehabilitate. But you can't ignore the severity of the crime."

The slaying occurred on the night of June 30 after a group of teens stumbled over a sleeping transient, James Clark, 58, as they headed to a beach party near Surfers Point in Ventura. The teens allegedly stole Clark's backpack, then kicked and stoned him. Clark died after suffering multiple blunt-force injuries that included a crushed kidney, a broken rib and possible skull fracture.

Police later arrested Mattley, Timothy Becker, 18, and Christopher Dunham, 19, all of Ventura, and Robert Coffman, 19, of Oak View. Ventura County prosecutors charged all four with murder, but decided to prosecute Mattley in Juvenile Court because he was 14 at the time of the slaying.

During a four-day trial in March, a Ventura police detective testified that Mattley admitted during a police interview to kicking "a bum" in the legs and throwing a rock at him. Although defense lawyers argued that Mattley was tagging along with the older teens, Dobroth said he had no choice but to convict him of second-degree murder because he participated in a deadly assault.

Trials for the other teens are expected to go forward later this year in Superior Court. The suspects face mandatory life prison sentences if convicted. In Juvenile Court, it's a different story. There, the goal is to rehabilitate, and the judge has discretion in deciding placement for a minor.

In Mattley's case, prosecutors are asking Dobroth to send the boy to the California Youth Authority, where he could be held until age 25, the maximum penalty possible. But defense lawyers say that would harm Mattley and do nothing to turn him into a productive member of society.

"Sending Rocky to the youth authority to be housed with much more hardened criminals, many with violent gang backgrounds, would be the worst possible alternative," Deputy Public Defender Howard Asher said. "My goal is to keep Rocky away from that type of environment."

Defense lawyers have scoured the nation to find a less restrictive placement and last week were notified that a school for troubled boys in western Nevada had agreed to take him. The program does not accept repeat offenders or youths with serious mental health problems, Asher said. He believes the school would give Mattley the education and job training he needs to turn his life around.

But prosecutors say the program is insufficient, in part because Mattley would be released at age 18.

"He participated in the killing of another person," Deputy Dist. Atty. Stacy Ratner said. "I don't think a three-year sentence is appropriate, no matter what your age."

Last week, Mattley's father, a parolee, blamed himself for not creating a better home life for his family and tearfully urged Dobroth to give his son a fresh start.

Mattley's older brother added that sending the boy to the youth authority would only harden him. "The place for a flower to be grown is in a garden, not in a pile of rocks," he told the judge.

But Clark's bereaved family members urged Dobroth to focus on the brutality of the crime and its apparent motive. Prosecutors contend the teens kicked and beat Clark for entertainment as he lay on the ground in a sleeping bag.

"There must be punishment for their actions," said nephew Tom Clark, who asked Dobroth to send Mattley to the youth authority for as long as possible.

"My Uncle James was homeless, but that doesn't mean he didn't have a family that loved him," Clark said. "Everyone knew he was just a kindhearted soul."

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