Juvenile facing murder charge highlights when teens face adult courts

Court documents from Laroux's court case.
Laroux, carrying box with his attorney's files, leaves the Keith County Courthouse. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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October 25, 2017 - 6:45am

When should a juvenile accused of a crime be treated like an adult?


Laroux leaves court carrying his attorney's files. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)


Click here to read the "Probable Cause" Affidavit filed against Laroux


The 15 Considerations

Click here to read the state law that guides judges when determining if a case should be transferred to juvenile court.

Juvenile and county court judges make that call inside courtrooms across Nebraska. They’ll tell you it’s not easy.

“It’s gut wrenching,” said Patrick Runge, chief judge for Tribal Courts of the Winnebago and Ponca Tribes.  “In a serious criminal action, the stakes are really high.”

From the bench, Runge often decided cases in which juveniles face criminal charges. As an attorney, he also defended teenagers and fought to get cases transferred to juvenile court.

“If you retain the matter in adult court you are affecting this child’s life for the rest of his or her life. If you move it to juvenile court you are taking a risk of harming the victims of the crime and of at a certain level, damaging society as a whole.”

It’s the decision being weighed this week by Keith County District Court Judge Donald Rowlands. He must decide whether to keep the second-degree murder trial of 16-year old Amadeus Laroux in district court or to transfer it to a juvenile court judge.

In March, 25-year old John Fratis died at Ogallala Community Hospital, the result of being stabbed six times. Fratis had been staying at a home just north of the town’s business center. Two residents of the home, Larry Derrera, 32, and Raylynn Garcia, 28, gave statements implicating Laroux.

They told a Nebraska State Patrol investigator prior to the killing Fratis fought three times with Laroux, who was a guest in the house. The couple claims they came into the living room as the third fight was underway. Garcia claims she saw Laroux stabbing Fratis repeatedly.

Keith County attorney Keith Fair filed murder charges against Laroux, 15 years old and living in Colorado at the time he was arrested. The case is initially being heard in district court. Being charged with a Class 1-B felony as an adult, Laroux could face 20 years to life in prison if found guilty. He entered a plea of not guilty.

Laroux’s attorney, Maren Lynn Chaloupka, told the court Laroux “disputes the claim he was involved in this stabbing.” Her questioning of the investigator indicated she would raise questions about the quality of the police investigation and the honesty of the witnesses.

The more immediate concern for Chaloupka and her client was attempting to get the case transferred out of adult court. Such a transfer in a murder case to juvenile court is almost unheard of in Nebraska.

Judges and attorneys interviewed by NET News said juveniles facing charges of a non-violent offense are routinely moved to the juvenile court where, by state law, the judicial system must act “in the best interest of the child.”

Those involved in the court added that transferring a homicide case out of adult court into the chambers of a juvenile court judge is almost unheard of in Nebraska.

Nebraska state law spells out the lists of factors prosecutors and judges must use in Nebraska to determine if a case involving a juvenile defendant warrants being moved to juvenile court.

Without commenting on the specifics of the Laroux case in the Keith County case, Judge Runge and retired Cass County District Judge Randall Rehmeier agreed to talk about the process used by judges to make those decisions.

The first step in any juvenile case must be taken by county attorneys in Nebraska. State law provides a list of 15 considerations, from perceived level of maturity to membership in a street gang.

When teenager’s charges land them in district court, state law provides the young person’s attorney to file for a transfer into juvenile court.

"It's almost incumbent upon the attorney to file the motion,” Rehmeier said. “We typically, on the bench, want them to file the motion.

“I think the popular thinking is that the juvenile defendant is going to be treated a little bit differently in the juvenile court system than they are in the criminal system,” Rehmeier said. Juveniles in the criminal system are “subject to statutory penalties, which include possible imprisonment in the Department of Correctional Services.” As a result, a teenager could be in contact with the adult prison population through their twenty-first year.

State law lists fifteen points for judges to consider when deciding whether an adult should be charged and tried as an adult.

One consideration, “the best interests of the juvenile,” provides “the guiding principal of juvenile court” according to Christine Henningsen, director of Nebraska Youth Advocates.

In adult cases the law does not specify looking out for the best interest of the accused.

Both science and the law now recognize young people with developing brains may be more likely to make bad choices, according to Henningsen and they have a better shot at changing personal behavior over time.

“With youth, they have this amazing capacity for change,” she said. “Their brains are still developing and so it can't be at a point where we turn our backs on them and discredit their capacity for change.”

Among the other considerations in state law, some are very straight forward.

Was it a violent crime?

Is there evidence the juvenile is a member of a gang?

Has the juvenile been in trouble with guns before?

Other considerations leave plenty of room for interpretation by the judge. The court must determine if the teenager is found responsible for the crime, is he or she a candidate for treatment and therapy? Do they appreciate “the nature and seriousness of his or her conduct?”

Weighing those elements lands squarely on the judge’s shoulders.

“It’s what’s referred to in the case law as a balancing,” Runge said. “The judge is balancing the different elements, weighing whether the case should or should not be transferred."

He adds that each of the considerations “are factors, not a formula.”

“You have a list of things to help try to make the decision more objective, so it’s not just sort of a gut level determination,” Runge said. “It is still much more of an art than a science.”

It is science and studies of juvenile brain development that led to re-thinking how young defendants are dealt with in the courts. It is now widely recognized that development of areas of the human braining governing impulse control is not complete until the mid-20s.

In a summary of its research, The Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital states while juveniles can often recognize risks, “incomplete development of brain mechanisms (regulating) impulsive behavior reduces their tendency to heed those risks.”

There are times in juvenile court transfer cases when experts are consulted to offer opinions on the mental state and maturity of the teenagers to face a trial.

“That becomes a little subjective,” Runge said. “You are probably going to hear evidence regarding the juvenile defendant's previous conduct in the past.”

In the Keith County murder case, Laroux had some minor run-ins with police that put him on probation in Colorado. He was in violation of his probation by traveling to Nebraska the day before the homicide.

His attorney called on a clinical psychologist the  Dr. Joseph Peraino to offer his analysis of the juvenile's development.

Peraino testified childhood emotional trauma can arrest brain development. His interviews with Laroux suggested trauma from a number of incidents have had an impact on his behavior. In 2014 Laroux’s father was gunned down by police after the man took hostages at a Denver convenience store. The incident was televised live.

Peraino, studying Laroux without knowledge of the nature of the alleged crime, said the teenagers distant, “chill” attitude and apparent slow brain processing functions could have an impact on his overall IQ.

A judge can also weigh the expert’s testimony alongside how a teenager acts in court. Judge Rehmeier places that under the final item state law allows as a consideration: other matters as the parties deem relevant to aid in the decision.

“Whether they show any remorse or not for what has happened; how they project themselves; it’s an intangible,” Rehmeier said.

“It’s not one of the elements listed but if nothing else that subliminally comes into play and you are on the bench trying to decide what to do.”

Should a judge determine there is justification for hearing the juvenile’s case in adult court, the actual trial is similar in adult and juvenile courts. Taking evidence and hearing from witnesses are all part of the proceedings.

If the juvenile is found guilty there is a difference between what happens to the guilty. 

There is little choice but to punish the juvenile as an adult after a district court trial. A jail sentence within the prison system is likely.

At the hearing requesting a transfer when a judge makes a determination there is evidence that treatment of a juvenile wouldn’t be enough to assure public safety, there is little choice than to hear the case with the rest of the adults charged with violent offenses.

Judge Runge said if the juvenile has “a very violent circumstance and there is no treatment that’s  available going to remedy or resolve the issue that that is a factor that weights against maintaining it in juvenile court.”

“The whole point of maintaining it in juvenile court is something that there is something we can do to help that juvenile and if there is nothing we can do as a system to help that individual than that certainly weights against maintaining it in juvenile court because, what’s the point?"

Runge and former judge Rehmeier agree if there is a chance a juvenile offender can change they prefer keeping cases in juvenile court with the greater opportunities for therapy.

Rehmeier said “we are dealing with younger people, still forming their direction in life, we want to make sure that every opportunity is given them to rehabilitate and keep them out of a prison setting. Not everybody who goes to prison comes out a better person.”

Christine Henningsen, director of Nebraska Youth Advocates, considers the fate juveniles facing trial in adult court in even starker terms.

“Incarceration is never going to be in the best interest of a child.”

While awaiting the judge’s decision, Laroux’s family has a one million dollar bond allowing him to stay with his mother in Colorado where he is taking high-school classes online.

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