At the end of a long sunlit hallway typically filled with jurors and lawyers, tucked away in a shadowy corner is Courtroom 48. It is an ordinary courtroom, with a judge’s bench, tables for the prosecution and defense attorneys, a desk for security, a dozen chairs for the jury and seats for the audience. On Monday, Feb. 11, Courtroom 48, however, was more than just another brick and mortar space.
Clad in navy blue sweats with his hair slicked back, a rather tall, thin and pale 17-year-old Brandon McInerney walked into courtroom with his arms behind his back, as if shackled with invisible cuffs, and took the seat next to his attorneys. It had been three years — almost to the day — since Brandon’s life took on a whole new meaning. On Feb. 12, 2007, at E.O. Green School in Oxnard, Brandon, then 14 years old, allegedly pulled out a gun, shot 15-year-old Lawrence King in the back of the head and walked out of class.
The court proceeding on Monday was nothing new to Brandon. His life has been punctuated with court dates and visitations by his family for the last three years as he bides his time in juvenile detention. His next court date is on April 4, when his defense attorneys will inform the judge if they are ready to proceed to trial, which is tentatively set for May 2. Because Brandon is being tried as an adult, he could get a life sentence of up to 53 years if he is convicted of first degree murder and a hate crime based on Larry’s sexual orientation.
In another courtroom on the same day, a 16-year-old boy, shackled and in a literal cage with other suspects — young and old — awaited a competency hearing for allegedly stabbing to death a 16-year-old boy at a party in Ojai in April 2009. He was also 14 years old when he was arrested for the murder of 16-year-old Seth Scarminach. Authorities said that the teenager had been affiliated with a local street gang at the time.
It is obvious the two boys are in over their heads — both have been accused of horrific crimes; both were the same age when they allegedly committed those acts; and both await their fate behind bars. While Brandon will be tried as an adult, his fate to be sealed in adult court, the Ojai suspect could stand trial in either juvenile or adult court, pending the decision by the district attorney. The consequences are much more severe for adults, which may include life in prison and, for some, the death penalty. Juveniles receive less harsh sentences, serve their time in juvenile detention facilities and are typically released by the time they are 22 years old.
The issue at hand is, at what age are children capable of acting as adults, committing “adult” crimes? According to California law, we decided that not only are children and teenagers capable of acting as adults, based on the severity of their crimes, but that local district attorneys can decide which children suspects acted as an adult, and which ones didn’t, without approval of the court.
In 2000, California voters passed a law, Prop. 21, that gave prosecutors — instead of judges — the power to send juveniles to adult court. Instead of judges in juvenile court weighing the actions of young suspects and sending them to the appropriate court, prosecutors — the people paid to act on behalf of the state, which is interested in maintaining law and order and pursuing justice — were given the authority to judge children’s crimes and make a decision that could completely alter their fates.
While we understand the severity of both crimes — murder, with rare exceptions, is not justified — it is perplexing that children and teenagers with brains still forming whose scope of the world is oftentimes limited to television, family and a small circle of friends can get life sentences in adult prison. It is a shame, conversely, that Californians authorized prosecutors alone to make that decision, that a child is no longer a child, but an adult, based on whatever loose criteria were written in Prop. 21.
Unfortunately, there is no turning back the clock for Brandon or other youth in similar situations. We can’t undo what Prop. 21 has already done, though it is possible to overturn it. But as we move into the future, we need to side with compassion and understanding, realizing that no matter the severity of certain crimes, these people are, in fact, still children and are treated in every arena of American life — be it voting, driving, drinking, working, etc. — as children. Exceptions should be weighed only by impartial judges who are not prosecution- or defense-oriented.