13-Year-Old Charged with First-Degree Murder in Oklahoma Faces Life in Prison
In Oklahoma last month, the Lincoln County District Attorney’s Office charged a 13-year-old boy with first-degree murder after an October play date ended with him hitting his two friends (ages 8 and 10) with a crossbow arrow, killing one. According to NewsOK, the arrow went through the 10-year-old, killing him, and punctured the 8-year-old in the arm. The 13-year-old boy told authorities that the incident was an accident. However, the 8-year-old who was hit told investigators that the 13-year-old was angry at his friends.
The case was picked up by national outlets, including the Associated Press and CBS News, which noted that the 13-year-old boy is one of the youngest ever in Oklahoma to be charged as an adult with first-degree murder, a charge that comes with a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison. But one thing was left unsaid: The prosecutor seems to be using an inflated charge, given the crime, in order to put a 13-year-old behind bars.
In Oklahoma, first-degree murder usually requires “malice aforethought” (also known as premeditation). Second-degree murder, on the other hand, is defined as not premeditated, but with the intent to harm or kill. That’s different from manslaughter, which includes homicides committed in the heat of passion, without malice or intentional harm. The Lincoln County DA’s office did not respond to a request for comment — including questions about why the office decided to charge the 13-year-old boy with first-degree murder instead of second-degree murder or manslaughter.
A first-degree murder charge is the only way for a prosecutor in Oklahoma to automatically charge a 13-year-old as an adult without a judge’s ruling. A first-degree murder charge also comes with a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison, life without parole, or death. As a comparison, second-degree murder in Oklahoma comes with a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. Given his young age, if the 13-year-old boy had been charged with anything other than first-degree murder, he would have been charged in the juvenile justice system.
There, his age and background would come into consideration in the courtroom and there would be programming and mental health services to help him with rehabilitation. A prosecutor can seek to have a child’s case transferred to adult court if that child is convicted of a felony, but the request must be reviewed by a judge and supported by “clear and convincing evidence” that prosecution as an adult is warranted.
Samantha Buckingham, director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at Loyola Law School, declined to discuss the Oklahoma case specifically, but told The Appeal that prosecutors often file more serious charges to bring cases in adult criminal court rather than proceeding in juvenile court. “Prosecutors who have the power to directly file charges in adult court will utilize that power when they charge the most serious offense, which is oftentimes unwarranted by the facts, evidence, and mitigation present in the case,” she said.
It is not entirely set in stone that the 13-year-old boy’s case will remain in adult court, though proving he should be tried in the juvenile system now falls on his attorney’s shoulders: Oklahoma law allows the boy’s attorney to file a motion asking the judge to certify him as a juvenile. The judge has also ordered a psychological evaluation for the 13-year-old.
The prosecutors’ push to charge the 13-year-old boy as an adult and seek a life sentence flies in the face of recent juvenile justice reforms across the country. The most notable reform occurred after 2012 when the Supreme Court ruledin Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life without parole sentences for children convicted of murder were unconstitutional. The ruling cited research on children’s brain development and the outcomes of putting children through the adult criminal justice system. Studies show that children are more likely to re-offend if they go through the adult criminal justice system, while their chances for rehabilitation are far greater when they go through the juvenile justice system.
There is “an indisputable body of research that shows that youth’s brains are still developing through their teen years [and up until age 25]. In fact, this is such an intense period of growth that it is as critical to a young person’s future as the well-known brain development that takes place in the ages of 0 to 3,” Sarah Bryer, executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network, told The Appeal.
Since the Supreme Court ruling, at least 20 states, plus Washington, D.C., have banned juvenile life without parole sentences. Another six states have no people currently in prison who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. Oklahoma is in neither of these categories. In 2016, the most recent data available, Oklahoma had 10 people in its prison population who’d been sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. Other states, like Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, had over 200 people in prison in 2016 who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. More than 20 states have no child lifers currently in prison.
Despite recent legislation in many states that followed the SCOTUS rulings, there are still factors stopping children from being treated like kids in the criminal justice system. “We don’t have a juvenile court yet that handles all people up to 24 or 25 years old,” Buckingham noted. “Reforming the law to provide for hearings before a judge in each and every case will afford a critical opportunity to fully consider whether transfer of the child’s case to adult court is the best course for long-term concerns like recidivism and rehabilitation.”
But, in Oklahoma, the 13-year-old’s case demonstrates how prosecutors may try to get around any new legal restrictions: by filing trumped-up charges that go against the grain of SCOTUS opinion and the state’s preference — as reflected in its criminal code — in order to get children into the adult criminal justice system.