Saturday, February 2, 2008

Boy, 12, accused of ball-bat killing to undergo second competency exam


As prosecutors and defense attorneys consider the future of a boy accused of using a baseball bat to beat his 17-month-old cousin to death, one factor weighs heavily on their deliberations: whether or not he is competent to participate.
A source familiar with the case said so far one doctor has found the 12-year-old boy incompetent due to his age and maturity level. Results of the examination are confidential and no report has been prepared yet.

Attorneys on Thursday agreed to have a second doctor examine the boy for competency.

''Before the court can make a finding, there have to be two examinations,'' said Assistant State Attorney Maria Schneider.

''In some cases, such as this case, it never hurts to be extra cautious,'' said Sandra Perlman, one of the assistant public defenders representing the boy.

There's no indication that the boy suffers from mental illness, Schneider said. But a child can be considered incompetent simply because of his or her age and inexperience.

Prosecutors have offered the youth a plea deal in which he would plead guilty to second-degree murder as a juvenile. He would be committed to a maximum-risk residential program and, depending on how well he did, he could be released in 18 to 36 months.

After his release, he would enter a program similar to probation.

''In order for the child to be able to actually accept the plea, he needs to be deemed competent to proceed,'' Perlman said. ``He has to understand what's going on. And that's the issue that we are examining at this time.''

The second doctor will likely perform an examination within the next week and a half, interviewing the boy and family members, Schneider said.

''Before either a trial or a plea happens, the issue of . . . competency needs to be established for every child of this age,'' Schneider said.

''Everything is on hold until we get a final opinion by a doctor or doctors as to competency of this child,'' Perlman said.

Police arrested the boy, whom The Miami Herald is not identifying because of his age, after the Jan. 4 death of his cousin, Shaloh Joseph.

His accounts of how the girl died have changed -- first he confessed to hitting the girl's head with a baseball bat because she was making noise while he watched cartoons, police said.

Later, he allegedly told an investigator with the Florida Department of Children & Families that he ''tapped'' the girl with his hands.

The girl's parents have asked that the boy be kept in the juvenile justice system if he must be prosecuted.

Bob Dekle, a former prosecutor who teaches at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law, said the standard for competency is the same regardless of age.

''It's whether or not you can understand the nature of the charge and be able to discuss your case in a meaningful fashion with your lawyer and manifest appropriate courtroom behavior,'' he said.

But, Dekle said, the issue becomes trickier with young people.

''It has to do with life experience,'' he said. ``And the older you get, the more you've been exposed to, the more sophisticated you become, hopefully.''

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