By David M. Greenwald
Woodland, CA – Last week Yolo County Judge Janene Beronio rejected a motion to close the proceedings against a 13-year-old accused of murder after he allegedly stole a vehicle then drove it at high speeds through town, which tragically led to the deaths of two Woodland residents and injured eight other people.
As a member of the press, I normally agree that open proceedings are the way to go. The public not only has the right to know the evidence that the government has against the accused in the case—and public disclosure is a critical check against government abuse.
Indeed, I would argue that it is often the government that hides behind the confidentiality that is supposed to protect children from public scrutiny.
The Enterprise last week reported that both the Davis Enterprise and the Sacramento Bee opposed the defense motion to close the proceedings to the public as did Prosecutor Jennifer McHugh, who argued that several articles referenced in Avalos’ own motion showed “simply factual and accurate news reporting on a very small scale, and nothing that approaches the level where the court should even consider closing.”
However, she also notes, Welfare and Institutions Code (WIC) section 676 enumerates a list of offenses in which it states that “members of the public shall be admitted, on the same basis as they may be admitted to trials in a court of criminal jurisdiction.”
She notes that reviewing the legislative history of WIC Section 676, “it becomes clear that it was the legislative intent to provide additional public access to juvenile matters that allege certain enumerated offenses. However, the legislature does state that the admissibility of the public is akin to that which would be authorized in a court of criminal jurisdiction where Due Process, as well as a defendant’s 6th and 8th Amendment rights control and exceptions can be made if a showing of good cause can be presented.”
Avalos argues that the court has discretion limiting access to the courtroom, that high profile trials inherently create risk of prejudice to the defendant, and that the media coverage of this case “has been extensive and vitriolic.”
She argues, “The nature of coverage extends beyond mere news articles as it expands into social media.”
For instance, a Twitter comment by one user who said, “Shmmm… the douchebag kid deserves more than death… but the sad part is he gunno go free.”
Another person noted, “If found guilty, he should get the death sentence. This is my opinion only. I’m not a cruel person but he killed two people.”
Avalos argued, “These articles and social media posts are only a small sample of what can be found through an online search.” She said, “The examples show that the public has a strong and potentially extremely influential opinion about (the case).”
The Enterprise reported during the hearing Avalos argued, “It just seems like so much of the discussion has been about punitive measures — how can the court completely dissociate itself from that… It is very difficult for the family, for the minor and for counsel to believe this is going to be a fair proceeding.”
Reported the Enterprise, “That struck a nerve with the judge, who responded after serving 34 years on the bench, she knows not to be swayed by media coverage or public opinion.
“I have not read a single thing about this case. …This case is what I hear here in this courtroom,” Beronio said. “So whatever a press agency wants to publish, I’m not reading it. What they write will not prejudice me at all. There’s been no showing that I need to exclude anyone. The motion is denied.”
“The law was clear on the matter; the public is best served by openness in serious crimes of this nature,” Sebastian Oñate, editor of The Davis Enterprise said, as quoted in their article. “Beyond the tragic loss of life, and the direct and indirect impact on so many people, this case touches on wider public-safety issues that will be important for the community to hear.
But is the public’s interest served by turning a 13-year-old into a public spectacle? What the public has shown through their comments is that they emotionally react to this type of coverage—and they do so, apparently ignorant of the law. For example, it is unconstitutional for a 13-year-old to be executed in this country for any crime.
The whole incident is an undeniable tragedy. But at some point, we have to recognize that this is a child—not just a juvenile or a minor. This is a 13-year-old, barely out of elementary school. The minor is facing murder charges in a very tragic case.
Judge Beronio is frankly being blasé and naïve in suggesting that she would not be impacted at all by the information environment.
But, even beyond whether this case remains a public spectacle, is the fact that it’s being charged as a murder in the first place.
When the Supreme Court 15 years ago in Roper v. Simmons threw out the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-olds, the science finally caught up with the law.
In a joint brief filed, eight medical and mental health organizations including the American Medical Association cite “a sheaf of developmental biology and behavioral literature to support their argument that adolescent brains have not reached their full adult potential.”
“Capacities relevant to criminal responsibility are still developing when you’re 16 or 17 years old,” says psychologist Laurence Steinberg of the American Psychological Association, which joined the brief supporting Simmons. Adds physician David Fassler, spokesperson for the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the argument “does not excuse violent criminal behavior, but it’s an important factor for courts to consider” when wielding a punishment “as extreme and irreversible as death.”
In 1988, the court already ruled it it was unconstitutional to execute children under 16, but at that time ruled that it was within states rights to put 16 and 17 year old minors to death.
As Science Magazine pointed out, “Structurally, the brain is still growing and maturing during adolescence, beginning its final push around 16 or 17, many brain-imaging researchers agree.”
That debate was over 16- and 17-year-olds; this case is involving a 13-year-old who, while probably knowing better than to drive a vehicle at that age, also probably never had an inkling that it would result in the death of two people.
The National Juvenile Justice network noted that, as of October 2022, “24 states in the U.S. have no minimum age for prosecuting children.”
But they also note that the US is an outlier “throughout the world in the practice of prosecuting young children in court; 14 is the most common minimum age of criminal responsibility internationally.”
“It is shocking to the conscience that there are still states in this country that have not set a bare minimum age at which you can try a child in juvenile court,” they said. “NJJN calls on all states to set a minimum age of prosecution of no lower than 14-years-old in accordance with the standards set forth by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).”
In California, Governor Brown signed into law SB 439, which ended the prosecution of children under the age of 12—and established for the first time in 2018, a minimum age in California.
But while that represented a momentous step forward, it still left California out of compliance with the rest of the world.
Cited in the explanation for SB 439 is: “The inherent lesser culpability of youth under criminal law, given their expected developmental immaturity, as repeatedly recognized in recent United States Supreme Court decisions.”
Also, “The diminished capacity of children to make intentional decisions regarding participation in crime or understand that an act was morally wrong.”
At the end of the day, what is prosecuting this case going to change? A horrible thing happened and cannot be undone. It was done by a child. Continuing to publicize the proceedings, however, will continue to inflict damage on this child by a public that is clearly not educated on childhood brain development.