Authorities in a small Texas town near San Antonio charged a 12-year-old boy with capital murder this week, raising questions about the best approach to juvenile justice.
The boy, whose name has not been released, is accused of shooting John Duane VanMeter, a 24-year-old aspiring professional boxer, in his home in Uvalde, Texas, on Jan. 23. VanMeter’s fiancée, Sammy Arellano, told the San Antonio Express-News that the suspect had stayed with them intermittently after befriending her son, but he was a bad influence and had stolen from them. She and VanMeter recently told the boy he was no longer welcome in their home.
At about 8 p.m. on the day of the shooting, the family heard a loud sound like someone trying to kick in the front door. VanMeter went to investigate and was shot. Witnesses said they saw a young man wearing all black with a bandana over his face running away from the house. Police took the suspect to a juvenile detention center a few hours later and the next day announced he had been charged with capital murder, becoming one of the youngest ever in the nation to receive that charge.
Capital murder differs from first-degree murder because it involves a special circumstance such as killing an on-duty police officer or committing another felony at the time of the killing. In the Uvalde case, the special circumstance could be breaking and entering or burglary, though prosecutors have not yet confirmed it. Adults charged with capital murder, the most severe form of felony, are eligible for the death penalty, but a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision restricted courts from sentencing juveniles to death. In the case of the Uvalde boy, the prosecutor is pushing for 40 years in prison, what the federal sentencing commission calls a de facto life sentence. Juvenile justice advocates argue the boy’s age should cause the prosecutor to reconsider.
“Throughout the last several years, the United States Supreme Court has made it clear—juveniles must be treated differently than adults in the criminal justice system,” Mandy Miller, an attorney in the Houston area who has represented several juveniles convicted of capital murder, told me. “This is due to both their behavioral and physiological lack of maturity.”
Secular and faith-based juvenile justice workers agree that community- and family-centered treatment are better for youth offenders than incarceration.
“We know from evidence and experience that young people do better when connected to their families and communities; when isolated and confined, they can become more traumatized and disengaged,” Prison Fellowship Senior Vice President Craig DeRoche and juvenile justice advocate Amy Woolard wrote in a 2016 op-ed for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Though incarceration might be necessary for some violent offenders, a de facto life sentence would prevent any meaningful rehabilitation, Miller said, adding, “Depending on the crime and the prior background, a long sentence, coupled with some sort of supervised release is conceivable, but all of this depends heavily on the facts of the case and the child’s background.”