Youth advocates decry trying teen as adult in girl's death

AP News
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Posted: Jul 31, 2015 7:26 PM

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A 15-year-old boy charged as an adult with raping and killing his 8-year-old neighbor in California is too young to understand what he is accused of doing, youth advocacy groups said Friday.

They say the district attorney should have asked a judge whether suspect Adrian Jerry Gonzalez is fit to stand trial as an adult and possibly subjected to lengthier, more severe penalties than he would as a juvenile.

"There's a lot of public horror about what allegedly happened, but we don't really know very much. This is unfolding very quickly, and the prosecutor made the decision without knowing much about the motive," said Sue Burrell, an attorney with the Youth Law Center based in San Francisco.

Police say Gonzalez lured Madyson Middleton to his family's apartment then hid her body in a recycling bin.

Santa Cruz County District Attorney Jeffrey Rosell charged Gonzalez as an adult on Wednesday. A possible motive has not been disclosed.

In announcing his decision, Rosell said his office typically considers the nature of a crime, how crimes were committed, and the age of a defendant. He declined to say whether Gonzalez has a record.

Rosell was not immediately available for further comment Friday.

If convicted, the teen described by neighbors as a yo-yo expert and all-around nice kid could face life in adult prison.

As a juvenile, the most Gonzalez could have faced, generally speaking, is confinement in a youth facility until he turns 23. Juveniles are not eligible for the death penalty under a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

"There is no way on earth that a 15-year-old could have fully comprehended what he was doing," said Barry Krisberg, a University of California, Berkeley criminologist who has long been involved with juvenile law in California.

"He might be able to recount the events that resulted, but the notion that he comprehended the consequences of his action flies in the face of all the science we know," Krisberg said.

Harriet Salarno, board chairwoman of Crime Victims United of California, supported the prosecutors' decision to try Gonzalez as an adult.

"This young man knew what he was doing," she said. "He had planned it, he knew her. It wasn't just in the heat of passion or anything. It should be tried and let the jury decide."

The high-profile killing with its lurid details has stunned the coastal town of Santa Cruz south of San Francisco.

The victim and suspect were both well-known in public schools and their mothers are part of a community of artists at Tannery Arts Center, a unique housing complex that includes 100 affordable loft apartments for artists and their families.

In 2014, 13 teens who were then 15 were arrested on homicide charges in California, said Kristin Ford, spokeswoman for the California Department of Justice. The department does not track how many were tried as adults.

Christopher Hawthorne, director of the Juvenile Innocence & Fair Sentencing Clinic at Loyola Law School, said most minors charged with murder under circumstances similar to the Santa Cruz case are tried as adults.

Burrell said it's best to let a judge make that decision after considering factors such as the sophistication of a crime and whether the boy could be rehabilitated.

A message left for Larry Biggam, a public defender appointed to represent Gonzalez, was not immediately returned.

Madyson was reported missing on Sunday and her body discovered Monday night.