Juries for Juveniles

A jury trial is granted in the Woodson school shooting case, but the district attorney's office says it'll be struck down on appeal.



Juvenile Court Judge C. Hearn Taylor says that Louisiana teens accused of violent crimes should be able to rely on our country's bedrock document: the Constitution. "Juveniles charged with serious felony offenses," writes Taylor, "should only have to rest their trust in the Constitution of the State and of these United States."

Adults who are charged with similar criminal offenses, according to Taylor, can be confident that there's more to justice than simply the system and the judge. That's because trial by jury is their Constitutional right. Kids, says Taylor, deserve that same confidence. And so, Taylor ruled that Darrell Johnson and Alfred Anderson, the two youths charged in last fall's Carter G. Woodson school shooting, deserve trial by jury.

The 11-page ruling, which Taylor read into the record in his Orleans Parish courtroom this past Thursday, could set the stage for what could be the first juvenile court jury trial ever in the state of Louisiana. ("Crossing the Line," Gambit Weekly, May 22, 2001)

Taylor's decision pleased the people at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), who had put forth the motion for the jury trial via staff attorney Derwyn Bunton and colleague Harold DuCloux III from the St. Thomas Community Law Center. JJPL Director David Utter says that, in this ruling, "Judge Taylor is recognizing that, without the right to a jury trial, kids were being denied a basic constitutional right that others have."

Other juvenile court insiders had worries that Taylor's ruling would chip away at the very existence of a separate juvenile justice system, because it grants an "adult right" -- a jury trial -- to juveniles. Taylor's ruling addresses that concern. "This Court finds that the only unique aspect of the juvenile adjudication procedure that imposition of a jury trial would destroy is its nature as an unconstitutional forum for young Americans who perceive a trial by jury to be a necessary protection due them."

Utter takes the same point of view. "Adding this constitutional right that everybody has," Utter says, "does not diminish the importance of the right to rehabilitative treatment. Judge Taylor is really clear about that, that there are two distinct phases here, the adjudication and the disposition." According to the ruling, a jury would decide guilt or innocence, but the sentencing and decisions about rehabilitative programming would still remain in the hands of a judge.

Yet before any jury can decide on anything, Judge Taylor's ruling has to stand up against the appeals process. And, over in District Attorney Harry Connick's office, First Assistant D.A. Tim McElroy is pretty sure that the state's Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal will see things his way.

McElroy says he sees "a series of unanswered questions," including: Shouldn't adult sentencing -- considerably more lengthy -- apply to juveniles if they are tried by jury? Should all juvenile court proceedings be open to the public, like they are in adult proceedings? And since the district attorney's office speaks on behalf of victims, could victims -- who might allege that juvenile judges coddle juvenile offenders -- request a jury trial if they're accosted by a juvenile?

Most of all, McElroy says, he sees a big legal gap in the ruling because it doesn't mention Louisiana Children's Code Statute 808. "The statute says that all rights are preserved except a jury trial in juvenile cases," says McElroy. "We in this office have to follow the law as it's given to us. Judge Taylor has completely ignored that statute given to us by the legislature; he doesn't mention it and say it's unconstitutional; he doesn't say it's inapplicable; he ignores it. Now, if you're sitting on an appeals court, the first thing you'll do is send it back and say, 'Judge Taylor, what about this statute?'"

JJPL's Derwyn Bunton responds that the statute wasn't mentioned in the ruling because, while that statute says that the right to a jury trial is "not guaranteed," it doesn't say that a jury trial is prohibited. He also notes that several states -- including North Carolina, Alaska, and Texas -- already hold jury trials in their juvenile courts.

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