GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The homicide case involving a 9-year-old who authorities say shot and killed his mother near Sturgis presents a special challenge for the legal system.
If the suspect were an adult, what happens next would be straightforward: He would be held in jail until a trial. But when dealing with a child, especially one so young, the rules are different.
Vicki Seidl has prosecuted some of Michigan’s youngest killers, including Jamarion Lawhorn, who was 12 when he killed 9-year-old Connor Verkerke on a Kentwood playground in August 2014; and Keishawn Mann, who was 13 in 2010 when he fatally shot 35-year-old Jermelle Stokes in the head at a Kentwood residence. As horrifying as their crimes were, both are now doing well and considered rehabilitated.
“We charge probably a couple thousand cases a year and all those kids don’t go on to commit crimes again in the future,” Seidl told 24 Hour News 8 Wednesday at the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office. “It makes it easier to sleep at night when you know that in the end you’re trying to do what’s best for not only that child but society as a whole.”
In most cases, a child convicted of a serious crime is held in a juvenile facility, receiving treatment and education until the age of 18. At that point, a judge decides whether freedom or a transfer to an adult prison is appropriate.
“You don’t want it to destroy their entire life if possible. You want them to be able to come out the other side, so to speak, and learn from it and be a productive member of society,” Seidl said. “The younger the child, the better the chance that we do have at rehabilitation of them.”
There is a good reason children are treated differently.
“Their brains are different. What they understand and what they don’t understand is different,” Seidl said. “Our main goal is rehabilitation as opposed to adults, which is really more in some ways punitive, although there are programs available.”
When it comes to a child as young as the one involved in the Monday death of Pauline Randol, the way the the court must operate is even more specific.
“In Michigan, we have a law, a statute that basically says you’re presumed incompetent to stand trial if you’re under the age of 10,” she said.
The reason is that children so young don’t have the same understanding of the consequences of their actions, so it’s difficult to say they intended to do harm. There’s also the question of basic competency to deal with a legal battle.
“Does the juvenile even understand who a judge is, what the judge’s role is? Does he know who his defense attorney is? Does he understand what a prosecuting attorney is? Do they understand what a court process is? Do they understand what a jury is?” Seidl listed. “Under the age of 10, (they) just don’t know that. You can ask who a judge is and they have no idea.”
Clients have to be able to understand what the truth is and how to communicate with the court.
“If they don’t understand the trial process, they really can’t assist their attorney in their defense,” she said.
By law, defendants are entitled to assist in their defense.
Seidl said charging a child so young has serious pitfalls.
“You charge somebody, and if they’re found to be incompetent and you can’t get them restored or found to be competent in a certain amount of time, Michigan law says the judge has to dismiss it with prejudice — this means you can never charge them again. So therein lies the risk of charging a 9-year-old with a charge right now,” she said.
And a child so young would likely have to go to a foster home or into residential placement rather than stay at a juvenile jail, which may be difficult for one accused of murdering his mother.
Seidel spoke in generalities, as details of the southwest Michigan case are still few.
“This breaks my heart,” she said. “I don’t know what was going on, I don’t know all the facts and circumstances of what was going on in a 9-year-old’s brain.”