Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Prosecutors face difficult choices in case of boy, 12, accused of killing

By Paula McMahon and Macollvie Jean-François

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

January 8, 2008

When a child is accused of killing another child, prosecutors say that deciding whether the case should go to juvenile or adult court is among their most challenging choices.

For the second time in eight years, Broward prosecutors will have to decide whether a 12-year-old boy accused of murder should be prosecuted as an adult and, if convicted, face a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no parole; or whether he should go through the juvenile system and face a lesser punishment for what police call a brutal murder.

The 12-year-old Lauderhill boy is accused of using a wooden baseball bat to hit a 17-month-old girl on the head multiple times Friday afternoon. The girl, Shaloh Joseph, died. Police say the boy, a seventh-grader at Bair Middle School in Sunrise, confessed and told them he did it because she was crying and disturbing him from watching cartoons.

The case is reminiscent of the 1999 killing of Tiffany Eunick, 6. She was beaten to death in Pembroke Park by Lionel Tate, who was 12. Tate was the youngest person in the United States to be sentenced to life in prison when he was convicted as an adult of first-degree murder. The conviction was later overturned and he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, but he is now serving 30 years for violating probation.

"We have to look very carefully at these kinds of cases," said Maria Schneider, Broward's chief juvenile crimes prosecutor. "They are complicated and we are going to discuss every aspect of the case. We will make a decision that we feel is appropriate to reflect the seriousness of the crime and all the circumstances involved, including the age of the defendant."

Police said Monday the incident occurred around 12:30 p.m. Friday. They released a tape of the 911 call made at about 1:17 p.m. by an unidentified man who found Shaloh injured in her Lauderhill home. Shaloh was heard in the background hiccuping, whimpering and gasping.

The boy also spoke on the phone and, talking quickly and nervously, said he gave the toddler some milk, gave her a shower and put her to bed.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is not identifying the boy because of his age and because he is charged as a juvenile. While police arrested him on a murder charge, prosecutors will make a final decision on formal charges.

"Every time I gave her the food, she was crying. Each time I gave her the food, she was crying. She didn't want the food so I stopped," he said. "And I put her to bed."

He said he gave her a shower in warm water and "then I saw her eyes closed" and later he said she vomited.

Lauderhill Police Lt. Mike Cochran said the 12-year-old was angry because the toddler was interrupting him from watching TV and that he hit her with a bat several times on the head. Police say the boy, who is 4 foot 11 and weighs 90 pounds, was baby-sitting his 10-year-old brother and Shaloh, a second cousin. An autopsy showed the little girl died from multiple hits to the head and police say the 12-year-old confessed one day later in a videotaped statement.

Police and prosecutors say that adults were in and out of the victim's house during the day on Friday but that the three children were alone when the beating happened.

The boy had no criminal record, Schneider said. Florida's laws do not spell out a minimum age for children to be held criminally liable, but Schneider said that, in practice, they must be at least 11 to face juvenile charges in Florida.

Prosecutors have options. If they decided that the boy should be charged as an adult with first-degree murder, they would have to take the case to a grand jury and persuade it to indict him. A conviction would mean life in prison with no chance of parole.

Prosecutors could also decide to file lesser charges of second-degree murder or manslaughter, she said, which carry a lesser penalty. Or they could handle the case in juvenile court.

Among the things prosecutors have to weigh, Schneider said, is that in the juvenile system, punishments are much lighter. For instance, she said, the average stay for a juvenile detained in a maximum-risk facility for juveniles is two years. And the maximum stay is three years, she said. A juvenile can be released and placed on supervision, similar to probation, until they are 21.

The boy's assistant public defenders, Gordon Weekes and Sandra Perlman, said they are uncomfortable commenting because they do not yet have all the records.

"Our goal is to keep the child in the juvenile system," Perlman said.

Perlman said that the 12-year-old, who she called "an ordinary little boy with braces," was not baby-sitting the other two children. His mother, Guerla Joseph, who the attorneys said works at a nursing home for disabled senior citizens, had to go to work during the children's school vacation. On Friday, the last day of the school vacation, the boys' mom left them at the victim's home.

Prosecutors said there is no minimum legal age for a child to baby-sit another child, but parents or guardians who leave a child with insufficient supervision can face criminal proceedings if there is evidence of negligence. Schneider said she had no information about who, if anyone, was supposed to be supervising the children.

The boy's parents are divorced, but his father and the extended family are involved in his life, said Weekes, who visited the boy for a second time on Monday.

"His main concern was finding out how his mother is doing and how his brother and father were doing," Weekes said. "It was not what he was facing, but he was more concerned about his family and I think that speaks volumes about the kind of kid he is."

The boy is scheduled to appear in court Jan. 22 before Circuit Judge Charlie Kaplan.

Staff Writers Tonya Alanez and Akilah Johnson contributed to this report.

Paula McMahon can be reached at pmcmahon@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4533.

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