Why a 10-year-old in Pennsylvania can be tried for murder as an adult

A 10-year-old boy allegedly beat a 90-year-old woman to death in Pennsylvania. Why is this boy being tried in an adult criminal court? 

Tony Avelar / The Christian Science Monitor.
Many states allow minors to be tried as adults under certain circumstances. Above, Judge Jean Kerr Maurer holds a gavel in Multnomah County, Ore., in 2009.

A 10-year-old boy is old enough to allegedly beat a 90-year-old woman to death.

But is he old enough to be tried as an adult for homicide?

The law in Pennsylvania, where the murder of Helen Novak took place, says yes.

The boy was charged after his mother brought him to state police barracks the day of the murder, saying her son told her “he got mad, lost his temper and grabbed a cane and put it around Novak's throat,” police told The Associated Press.

He was apparently angry that Novak had yelled at him and held a cane against her throat and repeatedly punched her, killing her, prosecutors said.

The boy was advised of his rights and interviewed by a Pennsylvania trooper, and the woman’s injuries were consistent with his account, the AP reported. Novak’s death was ruled a homicide after an autopsy showed blunt force trauma to her neck.

Criminal homicide is excluded from juvenile law in Pennsylvania, so the boy was charged as an adult. His attorney, Bernard Brown, said he would seek to have the boy released into his father's care at a bail hearing Wednesday. Brown said he would also follow up with a request for a competency hearing, saying evidence gathered by prosecutors suggests the boy may have mental health issues. He said those issues could indicate he is not competent to stand trial and also may support the transfer of the case to juvenile court, according to the Associated Press. 

Traditionally, anyone under the age of 18 is considered a child and will be tried in the juvenile court system. But in every state there are legal provisions under which children can be tried as adults. 

Nearly every state allows a juvenile court judge discretion to transfer any case to adult court, waiving the exclusive jurisdiction of the juvenile court to hear cases involving juvenile offenders. Statutory law can require certain serious crimes, such as murder, be charged in adult court even if the defendant is a minor. In states where adult criminal courts have no jurisdiction in cases involving a juvenile defendant, or where both the juvenile courts and adult criminal courts have jurisdiction over cases involving certain crimes, prosecutors are allowed to decide whether to charge the case in juvenile court or adult criminal court.

There are significant differences between the juvenile and adult criminal court system. For example, "in the adult system, the goal is to punish.  In the juvenile system, on the other hand, the goal is to rehabilitate and serve the minor's best interest. Juvenile courts are often more informal than those for adults. For example, rules about the admissibility of evidence may be more lenient," according to legalmatch.com.

The Pennsylvania case is one of several within the past year where legal minors facing adult trials have attracted national attention.

The Christian Science Monitor reported that in the “Slender Man” case – in which two 12-year-old suspects allegedly attempted to stab another girl to death to please a fictional Internet boogie man – prosecutors said the stabbing was so calculated that attempted homicide charges were warranted against the two. Under Wisconsin law, cases of intentional homicide – where suspects are over the age of 10 – are tried in adult courts.

Prosecutors in Massachusetts said Philip Chism would be tried as an adult after he was charged with raping and murdering his high school teacher last year at the age of 14, as required by state law for anyone over 14 indicted for murder.

While states may mandate when a child is tried as an adult, in the past decade the US Supreme Court has put limits on sentences for juveniles, the Monitor reported.

A 2005 Supreme Court decision prohibited the death penalty for youths who committed their crimes before they were 18, and a 2010 decision banned sentences of life without parole for those under 18 convicted of crimes short of murder. In 2012, the high court also said states cannot mandate a life sentence without the possibility of parole for juvenile murderers, but must take into account their individual life circumstances.

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