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A 13-Year-Old Shot and Killed His Brother. Pennsylvania Police Charged Him as an Adult.

State law requires all murder charges be automatically filed in adult court, regardless of age.

On the morning of July 8, a 13-year-old wanted to play cops and robbers with his 9-year-old brother at their home in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. When the brother didn’t want to play and laid down to watch videos on YouTube, the boy retrieved a loaded 9mm handgun his father kept in an unlocked console of the couch.

He later told police that he was angry with his brother for not listening, so he pressed the gun to his brother’s head and pulled the trigger. His brother died from the gunshot wound.

In an interrogation by Pennsylvania State Police, during which the boy was accompanied by his grandmother but not an attorney, he admitted to having some knowledge about guns and that he knew the gun was loaded. He told police that he had previously taken the guns out and “practiced” with them without his parents knowing, though it is unclear from both the boy’s account and the affidavit of probable cause if he had ever fired a gun previously. 

But state police, at the direction of Franklin County District Attorney Matthew Fogal, charged the boy as an adult, with felony criminal homicide—which includes first-, second-, and third-degree murder, as well as voluntary and involuntary manslaughter—and felony aggravated assault.

Pennsylvania law requires that all murder charges be filed in adult court, regardless of the age of the person accused. District attorneys can also seek adult charges against any child 14 years old or older if they are accused of a felony. And because criminal homicide includes the possibility of a sentence of death or life without the possibility of parole, people charged with this offense are generally considered ineligible for bail.

“It’s just piling pain upon pain and tragedy on top of tragedy,” Sarah Morris, co-director and leadership board member for the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project—a nonprofit organization that advocates for keeping children out of adult court—told The Appeal.

“It doesn’t seem to serve anyone to be prosecuting this young person as an adult,” Morris said.

Had police charged the boy with manslaughter, his case would be tried in juvenile court. Had he been charged specifically with third-degree murder, his case would still have been charged in adult court but he would be eligible for bail.

The Appeal asked the state police why they decided to file the criminal homicide charge, rather than seeking a different charge that would allow the boy to be tried in juvenile court.

The boy “knew what he was doing when he put the pistol into his brother’s head and subsequently pulled the trigger, thus being charged as an adult for criminal homicide,” Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Megan Ammerman, told The Appeal. “He was familiar with firearms and had former firearms training.”

In 2011, state police charged a 10-year-old girl as an adult with murder in Franklin County for shaking and killing a baby. However, in that case police sought a third-degree murder charge, which made her bail-eligible. Fogal’s office did not oppose her release and did not seek to have her family pay cash bail.

When asked why the boy was charged with criminal homicide rather than another offense, Fogal said the decision was “based upon evidence in the ongoing investigation related to” his criminal intent.

The boy’s case can be transferred to juvenile court if he, through his attorney, files a petition to do so and the court finds he is amenable to treatment, though Fogal’s office can oppose that petition. As of Sunday evening, more than 450 people had signed a petition seeking to have the boy’s case transferred to juvenile court. 

A law passed in 1995 greatly expanded the number of children automatically charged in adult court, a practice known as direct file. The law requires that any child 15 years old or older automatically be charged in adult court if they are charged with certain felonies, like robbery, and used a deadly weapon during the commission of the crime or had previously been convicted in juvenile court for a similar offense.

Most cases in Pennsylvania where a child is charged in adult court are transferred to juvenile court, according to an Appeal analysis of court records. In a review of more than 240,000 criminal charging dockets filed in the state in 2017—the latest year available—The Appeal identified more than 460 cases where the person charged was a child. More than 70 percent of these cases did not result in an adult conviction, and more than 85 percent were not charged with murder or attempted murder.

“I think we have to ask what was the point of that whole song and dance of going to the adult system and causing harm when a young person is going to end up in the juvenile system,” Morris said.

Unlike the boy, who is white and has seen his case garner national attention, most children charged in adult court are Black and receive little media attention.

Despite accounting for only 13 percent of the state’s youth population, Black children made up nearly 70 percent of those charged in adult court in 2017. A Black child in 2017 in Pennsylvania was more than 10 times more likely than a white child to be charged or convicted in adult court, more than 14 times more likely to be incarcerated, and nearly 31 times more likely to be sentenced to prison.

State Representative Christopher Rabb, a Democrat from Philadelphia, said he plans to soon introduce a bill to eliminate direct file. Rabb, who is attempting to get support from other lawmakers for the bill, said his forthcoming bill would fully repeal the state’s direct file law for all cases, including murder.. 

“Charging children as adults is neither humane, nor an effective deterrent to violent crime,” Rabb told The Appeal. “Too many legislators past and present want to treat these kids like fucking zoo animals and not as human beings whose communities have been utterly ignored or worse, unworthy in their eyes of even an ‘ounce of prevention.’”

Should Rabb’s bill become law, Pennsylvania would join a growing movement that believes children should be treated differently than adults in the criminal legal system, and pare back tough-on-crime era laws forcing kids into adult court.

More than 35 states have passed laws to limit the number of children entering the adult system and adult prisons since 2005, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice.

Voters in California limited their state’s direct file law in 2016. New York raised its age of criminal liability to 18 from 16 for nonviolent offenses in 2017. In 2018, Vermont began to allow some people charged with certain nonviolent crimes before they turned 22 years old to remain in the juvenile system. That same year, the Oregon Supreme Court held that life sentences for people convicted of crimes they committed as children were unconstitutional.

In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that it is unconstitutional to sentence children to death or sentence them to mandatory life sentences. And a 2019 update to the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act mandates that beginning Dec. 21, 2021, children may not be held in adult jails even if they are being tried in adult court unless it is determined through a court hearing that hold the child in jail would be “in the interest of justice.”

“We believe that no young person should be prosecuted as an adult,” Morris said. “Whatever a young person has done or is accused of having done, they are still a child. It doesn’t change the fact that they’re a child.”