Los Angeles Juvenile Defense Attorney

Archive for the ‘Juvenile Court Procedure’ Category

Brain Scan Evidence Impacts Sentences Received by Juveniles

Saturday, August 18th, 2012

A groundbreaking study published by the journal Science shows that judges are likely to be influenced by the results of brain scans that are introduced into evidence.

The brain scan evidence was introduced as part of a hypothetical case that was shown to 181 state court judges.  As reported in The New York Times, the hypothetical case involved a man who beat a restaurant manager with the butt of a gun.

In the study, three researchers at the University of Utah tracked down 181 state judges from 19 states who agreed to read a fictional case file and assign a sentence to an offender, “Jonathan Donahue,” convicted of beating a restaurant manager senseless with the butt of a gun. All of the judges learned in their files that Mr. Donahue had been identified as a psychopath based on a standard interview — that is, he had a history of aggressive acts without showing empathy.

The case files distributed to the judges were identical, except that half included testimony from a scientist described as “a neurobiologist and renowned expert on the causes of psychopathy,” who said that the defendant had inherited a gene linked to violent, aggressive behavior. This testimony described how the gene variant altered the development of brain areas that generate and manage emotion.

The neurobiological evidence tended to impact the judge’s sentences in two, contradictory ways.  Evidence that the defendant was psychopathic increased his sentence, but evidence that the defendant inherited a gene linked to violent behavior reduced the sentence imposed by the judges.

This study has far reaching and potentially troubling implications, especially for juveniles who are charged with serious, violent offenses.  The study makes clear that judges are influenced by neurobiological evidence.  On the one hand, that means that prosecutors and judges may rely too heavily on scientific evidence to conclude that a juvenile poses a long-term threat to society.  That is what happened when the judges were confronted with scientific evidence that the defendant in the hypothetical was a psychopath. On the other hand, brain scans provide hope that juveniles and others accused of crimes will be treated in a way that takes their individual circumstances, history, and predispositions into account much more than they are today.  This is what led judges to show greater leniency based on the testimony of a neurobiological expert.

As a juvenile defense lawyer in Los Angeles, one of my first reactions to reading this study related to resources.  Specifically, how on earth is the juvenile justice system going to find the money and other resources to introduce brain scan evidence in juvenile cases?  At the moment, brain scan evidence has been introduced in very few cases, most notably in death penalty cases, and usually during the appeal of those cases.  Because the brains of juveniles are still changing, neurobiological evidence is potentially more important in juvenile cases than in cases involving adults.  This is especially true where juveniles are charged with serious violent crimes.

The article published in Science may usher in the beginning of a new era in the use of brain scans in criminal cases.  That may be the future.  If it is, the juvenile justice system will need to make enormous changes to make that future a reality.

One 20-Minute Hearing—Two Consecutive 30 Year Prison Sentences

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

If a child is accused of murdering two adults, what is a reasonable amount of time to determine whether they should be treated as an adult?

I am a criminal defense lawyer representing juveniles in Los Angeles, so you may think this is a trick question.  It isn’t.

A recent feature article in the Sunday New York Times describes the legal saga of Greg Ousley, from Indiana, who killed his parents when he was 14 years old.

With 24 hours of the killings, Greg “confessed” to the police.  Greg certainly admitted to pulling the trigger, but that doesn’t mean that his confession was legally valid.  There is reason to believe it may not have been.  Indiana law at the time didn’t permit juveniles to waive their Miranda rights-without parental approval.  So what do you do in a case where the parents aren’t alive?  The police were aware of the law, but simply ignored it.  They continued to interrogate Greg.

Greg doesn’t deny that he shot both of his parents with a shotgun. It’s also undeniable that the killings weren’t spontaneous.  There is evidence in the form of diary entries that strongly suggest that he planned the killings over a number of days.  There’s also no denying that this is a shocking crime and it’s difficult to get one’s head around it.

But let’s return to the questions with which I started this entry.  Shocking as this crime is, how much time should we devote to figuring out whether Greg Ousley should have been tried as an adult?  Reasonable people can disagree about the answer to this question, but I hope we can agree that this issue deserves more time than Greg received—one 20-minute hearing in court.

That’s right; two days after “confessing,” and less than three days since the crime was committed, thanks to his court-appointed lawyer, Greg got a single lousy 20-minute hearing.

Two days later, Greg was taken into court for a hearing on whether his case should be routed into the adult legal system. His court-appointed lawyer might have asked for a preliminary psychiatric examination, a procedure that would have at least slowed the process down, but he declined to do so. He might have also asserted that the presence of premeditation — the prosecutor’s chief argument for taking it to adult court — was a particularly poor standard in the context of juvenile parricide; given the physical and psychological power imbalance inherent in child-parent relationships, a not uncommon feature to such murders is premeditation. He declined to do that as well. And so in a single 20-minute hearing held less than 72 hours after the murders, it was decided that the 14-year-old would stand as an adult.

Greg accepted a plea of guilty but mentally ill.  At his sentencing hearing, three psychological examiners hired by defense counsel argued that Greg shouldn’t just be sent to jail; he should receive treatment.  The prosecutor argued that an example should be made of Greg.  The prosecutor won.  And Greg was sentenced to two consecutive 30 year prison sentences. That was 19 years ago.

Today, Greg Ousley is a poster child for how juveniles can turn their lives around, even in jail.  He is by all accounts a model prisoner.  Some of his biggest supporters are the hard-to-impress officials who work for the prison system.  He completed online courses and graduated from college with honors.  He is a good example of why the United States Supreme Court was correct to strike down laws that sentence juveniles to life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Greg’s case raises many difficult and confounding issues.  That’s why his story has received so much attention.  But as a juvenile defense lawyer, I can’t help but focus on those crucial moments in the days following his arrest.  Whatever you think of Greg Ousely and whether he should be released from prison now, it’s clear that a more engaged and aggressive criminal juvenile criminal defense lawyer would likely have made a big difference.