Yesterday as the news hit the Internet and airwaves, readers were outraged by Pennsylvania’s decision to charge 10-year-old Tristen Kurilla as an adult in the death of 90-year-old Helen Novak. According to the boy, Ms. Novak (a resident at the boy’s grandfather’s house, which he was visiting) yelled at him for entering her room to ask a question, angering the boy, and triggering his unpremeditated assault on her with a cane and his fists.
There is obviously more to this story than is now known, but the fact remains that Pennsylvania law gives prosecutors no choice but to charge anyone who commits murder, regardless of age, as an adult. Defense attorneys must petition the courts to re-charge the young person as a juvenile if they hope for the state to deal with the child in a rational way. But as we have seen in the case of 11-year-old Jordan Brown, publicity and politics can make this petitioning move problematic, to say the least.
More than five years after the event, Jordan is still incarcerated by Pennsylvania for two murders of which he has not been convicted and is most assuredly innocent (his conviction by a juvenile court has been vacated by the Superior Court in Pittsburgh, but through legal maneuvering by the state prosecutor, his present legal status is in limbo due to a pending ruling, and inaction, by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court).
There are a number of things which are extremely troubling about Pennsylvania’s approach to juveniles charged with murder.
First, the traditional protections generally afforded juveniles are not available to young people accused of murder. In Jordan’s case, as with Tristen’s, the identities of children are plastered all over the media, as are their back stories. Normally, the identities of children charged with other crimes are not disclosed to the public. This exception with regard to the act of murder ensures that the child’s identity will be forever linked with the act, regardless of circumstances, guilt or innocence.
Second, even though Tristen’s attorney has announced that he will seek bail, there is a question based on Jordan Brown’s experience whether bail is even available under the circumstances and Pennsylvania law. To my knowledge, it is not.
Third, regardless of innocence or guilt, Pennsylvania law prevents any child accused of murder being dealt with in a constructive way. As long as he maintains his innocence, Pennsylvania has denied Jordan any services which permit the state’s unjust acts being addressed for Jordan in a therapeutic way.
It is a bad, stupid statute and the Pennsylvania State Legislature must reform it immediately. Under pressure from the Philadelphia district attorney’s office (arguably the worst in the country), it was enacted as a knee-jerk reaction to Philadelphia’s perceived youth gang problem. As we are seeing, it is being applied in Pennsylvania to non-youth-gang-related cases and it must stop.
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