Kids as Young as 12 Can Be Tried as Adults for Murder

A 12-year-old girl has been charged with murder after she and two older friends allegedly carjacked a man in Durham, N.C., shot him, and left him for dead in the street.


Three Murder Charges

The 12-year old, along with a girl aged 14 and a boy aged 16, asked 35-year-old Johnny Danilo Villatoro for a ride on Dec. 28, then stole his car and shot him, according to local news reports. Cops found him lying in the street, and he later died at the hospital.

Perhaps underlining the ludicrous nature of the crime, the 12-year-old accidently shot herself while in the stolen SUV and had to be taken to the hospital and treated.

Only the name of the boy has been released – Justino Navarette Maya. All three have been charged with murder.

Adult Charges Vary by State

The age at which someone can be charged as an adult with a serious crime like murder varies by state.

“In North Carolina, the general rule is that you must be at least 6 years old to be charged as a juvenile, and at least 13 years old to be prosecuted as an adult,” points out Professor Jeff Welty, who teaches criminal law at the University of North Carolina School of Government.

The New Jersey Supreme Court recently held that it should be more difficult for prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults in serious crimes. The youths in that case, who were 16 when they attacked a boy, face 10 years in juvenile detention if convicted as juveniles but 40 years in state prison if convicted as adults.

Treatment vs. Punishment

Because of her age, the 12-year-old girl in the Durham case will be charged as a juvenile, Welty says, adding, “Juvenile court is oriented more towards treatment than punishment.”

The decision to transfer a juvenile to adult court is possible, however. That decision is made by a judge, and not the prosecutor, says Welty. Factors the judge might consider include the seriousness of the crime, the role played by the defendant, and the maturity of the defendant.

“By statute, though, transfer is mandatory for defendants over 13 charged with first-degree murder,” he adds.

So both of the 12-year-old’s cohorts will likely show up in adult court in North Carolina.

Federal Limits on Punishment

While there is no federal law limiting the age at which a juvenile could be tried for murder, a recent U.S. Supreme Court case did address the permitted punishment for juveniles in homicide cases.

In Miller v. Alabama, the Court said that punishing juveniles under 18 years of age with life imprisonment for murder violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The case has thrown many state criminal law systems into disarray because their laws allowing life in prison for juveniles are now unconstitutional.

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