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When a Child Says He's a Killer

Georgia's Legislature passed Amy's Law to stiffen juvenile penalties after a boy confessed to slaying a girl. Then someone else confessed.

April 16, 2006|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

CARROLLTON, Ga. — When Amy's Law -- passed by the Georgia Legislature and awaiting the signature of Gov. Sonny Perdue -- was introduced, a small group of child welfare advocates cautioned against rushing to tighten laws against juvenile offenders on the basis of a single emotional case.

That case, the 2004 strangling of 8-year-old Amy Yates, has since become even more emotional and more complex.

The 12-year-old locked up for the crime -- he's now 14 -- has been released. A mentally disabled 18-year-old, who was a minor at the time of the crime, confessed. Authorities don't know which youth, if either, should be held accountable.

The father who fought for the law in his daughter's name is struggling to see justice served -- for her and for the two young suspects.

Thomas Yates last saw Amy as she bicycled to her friend's trailer to deliver an invitation to her Hello Kitty birthday party. That April evening, Amy was strangled and her body left in a ditch.

Days later, a 12-year-old boy, a known troublemaker in the trailer park, confessed.

But he soon retracted his statement, and his lawyer complained that he had been interrogated for three hours without legal counsel.

Furious that the boy's age meant that the stiffest penalty he could face under Georgia law was two years in juvenile detention, Yates, a 31-year-old newspaper deliveryman, petitioned legislators for stiffer sentences for juveniles.

Amy's Law would give juvenile court judges the authority to lock up any child found guilty of murder until the offender turned 21.

Under current state law, children younger than 13 can be sentenced to a maximum of two years of confinement for murder; juveniles 13 and older can be prosecuted as adults in violent crimes.

The Amy Yates case -- which was picked up by news outlets across the world as a heart-rending example of the argument for stiffer penalties for juveniles -- is now becoming a study in the difficulty of treating children like adults.

In February, the 18-year-old confessed to killing Amy.

He too later retracted his statement.

Last week, the younger boy -- who was sentenced to a juvenile facility in August 2005 after reaching a plea agreement with prosecutors -- was released after a juvenile court judge threw out his plea agreement.

Dist. Atty. Pete Skandalakis has three weeks to decide which suspect to prosecute or whether to drop the case altogether.

"I think it's possible that there will always be doubt in this case," he said. "We have no DNA, no fingerprints, no witnesses. We're relying on the statements of a boy who was 12 years old and a mentally disabled adult."

Yates, who earlier was convinced the 12-year-old committed the crime, now is "100% certain" that the older suspect, Chris Gossett, did it.

It was Gossett's home that Amy was pedaling to on the night she died; Gossett was her friend's brother.

Although some details of Gossett's confession did not match information that investigators knew about the case, Yates said that key details -- Gossett said he threw Amy's white notebook across a creek and unbuttoned her pants -- corresponded with information that had not been made public.

Yates is so convinced of Gossett's guilt that he is fighting on behalf of the boy he previously thought committed the crime.

"I made a mistake," he said. "I've apologized to the family, because I said a lot of hateful things to them.... Now I'm asking everyone to stand up and admit we made a mistake."

Some child welfare advocates feel a certain vindication.

"The fact that a second boy is a suspect is the icing on the cake in terms of what we've been saying about the differences between children and adults," said Normer Adams, executive director of the Georgia Assn. of Homes and Services for Children.

Adams, who worries that legislators are becoming more punitive in dealing with juvenile crime, said that children -- including those who commit serious crimes -- are cognitively different from adults.

"Both of those boys were interrogated without counsel, and it is possible to coerce confessions out of children fairly easily," he said.

In 2004, Yates was indignant when the lawyer for the 12-year-old complained about the boy's interrogation. Yates did not believe a doctor who said that someone that age would eventually say anything to get out of the room.

According to Georgia's Department of Juvenile Justice, four children 12 or younger have been convicted of murder in the state in the last decade.

Although there seems to be no statistical evidence that more children are committing murders, Anne Dupre, a specialist in child law at the University of Georgia, said the perception that such crimes were more frequent was driving a national trend toward stricter sentencing.

Despite Yates' belief now in the younger boy's innocence, he is still convinced of the need for Amy's Law. "Any crime that results in the loss of life deserves harsh punishment," Yates said.

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