What the Freeman High School shooter could face if he is tried as an adult

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The 15-year-old Spokane County boy who shot and killed one classmate and injured three others Wednesday morning at Freeman High School is charged with first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder. The question now is whether he will stand trial in juvenile court or will face the accusations as an adult.

If convicted as a juvenile, attorneys say the boy 
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would be released by the time he's 21 years old — a six-year sentence. As an adult, a conviction could put him away for at least 20 years.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said during a press conference Thursday afternoon that his office will push to "try him as an adult for pre-meditated murder."

"This young man got sucked into a counterculture of violence," Knezovich says. "A culture that's enamored with school shootings."

Ultimately, it's up to prosecutors whether to charge the accused shooter, Caleb Sharpe, in juvenile or adult court. Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell did not immediately respond to emailed questions about the case.

But local defense attorney Bevan Maxey, who is representing Sharpe, believes that prosecutors will try to have the case moved to adult court. "However, that hearing won't be for a considerable period of time," Maxey says.

From there, it's up to a judge. And there are many factors to consider.


THE PROCESS

For 16- and 17-year-olds charged with "serious, violent" crimes in Washington state, prosecutors can move the case to adult court without a judge's approval. But for kids 15 and younger, the state must ask for the case to be moved to adult court, and a judge will decide.

That hearing is similar to a "mini trial," says Spokane County public defender Megan Manlove, who works in juvenile court, but is not representing the accused Freeman High shooter.

"It's a lot of preparation, and typically each side will retain experts," she says. "Sometimes those hearings can last two days."


THE FACTORS


Manlove says each side will present evidence, such as the shooter's "social history," to try to show his level of maturity and "sophistication." YouTube videos and other posts on social media, as well as testimony from family members, friends, law enforcement and psychologists, are fair game.

"To [move the case to adult court], several factors have to be met," Manlove says. "It's not something the judge takes lightly. It's a major decision."

Ultimately, the judge must decide if moving the case to adult court, or keeping it in juvenile court, "is in the best interest of the juvenile or the public." The judge weighs eight factors that came out of a 1966 U.S. Supreme Court case, known as the Kent Factors, to make a decision:

1. Seriousness of the offense and safety of the community.

2. Manner of the crime, and whether it was "aggressive, violent, premeditated or willful."

3. Was the crime committed against people or property? Greater weight is given to crimes against people.

4. The merits of the charge. How solid are the details leading to accusations?

5. Did the kid act on his own? Or did adults play a role?

6. The "sophisticated" and "mature" is the shooter?

7. The shooter's criminal history.

8. The degree to which the public will be protected, and the likelihood that the shooter can be rehabilitated.


THE SENTENCE

If the accused shooter is convicted in juvenile court, the longest amount of time he can spend in detention is six years — until his 21st birthday.

If he is convicted in adult court, he's probably facing at least 20 years and at most about 26, Manlove says. Although, a judge has the option of lessening the sentence.

A 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case has ruled that life sentences without the possibility of release as a mandatory sentence for juveniles is unconstitutional. And further, the court "does not expect very many youths under age 18 to get such a sentence that essentially would require them to stay in prison until they die," a summary of the decision says.


RECORDS SEALED

If the accused shooter is convicted in juvenile court, his records could eventually be sealed after he's released, Manlove says. That means the incident would not show up on a background check.

In Washington state, there is a strong presumption that juvenile records will be sealed when the kid turns 18 (or is released from detention), as long as restitution is paid off. Some records can be sealed without any action from the kid and without judicial review, according to a Washington state Supreme Court decision two years ago.


REHABILITATION vs. PUNISHMENT

Beyond sentence length, the goals of the juvenile system versus the adult system are dramatically different.

"Juvenile court tries to rehabilitate," Manlove says. "Adult court is more punitive."

Regardless of where the case ends up, Manlove says the shooter, if convicted, will be held in a juvenile detention facility, not an adult penitentiary.

"He's going to get out eventually," she adds. "I don't know what good it's going to do to send him to adult court. The research is pretty clear; adult court does not lead to better community safety. Those kids actually have a very high recidivism rate. The community could actually benefit more if the case stays in juvenile court, where the goal is rehabilitation.

"And not to discount the victims or downplay the seriousness of the accusations," she says. "But in the end this is still a 15-year-old boy. He's a child."