Judge considers waiving juvenile status in Cheltenham slaying
Youth, then 13, would be youngest in county to be charged as an adult
A Prince George's County Juvenile Court judge is expected to rule Dec. 10 whether the 14-year-old boy accused of killing a Cheltenham Youth Facility teacher in February can be tried as an adult, after hearing arguments Monday from both sides.
The youth, who was 13 at the time of the homicide, would be the youngest-ever juvenile charged as an adult in the county. Previously the youngest juvenile to face adult charges was 14 at the time of the crime, according to the county state's attorney's office.
If the boy charged in the Cheltenham Youth Facility slaying keeps his juvenile status and is convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of imprisonment until he turns 21. If the boy is tried as an adult, he faces a maximum sentence of life in jail if convicted.
The county state's attorney's office requested the court waive the boy's juvenile status and try him as an adult given the nature of the crime.
The juvenile was arraigned July 28 on charges of murder and rape in the death of Hannah Wheeling, 65, of Bel Air, a general studies teacher at the juvenile detention facility.
The juvenile status issue will be decided in two stages. During the first stage, which began with the oral arguments Monday, Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr.will decide whether a 13-year-old, in general, can be tried as an adult; the court considers the age of juveniles at the time they are accused of committing a crime.
If Nichols rules that the law allows for a 13-year-old to be tried as an adult, the attorneys will then argue whether the boy charged in Wheeling's death should be tried as an adult.
On Monday, the boy's attorney, public defender Allen Wolf, argued there are two conflicting laws governing the age at which a juvenile can be tried as an adult. One states that a juvenile under age 15 can have his or her juvenile status waived only if charged with a crime that carries a maximum sentence of life in jail; the other law states that a juvenile 14 or older is automatically tried as an adult if charged with that same type of serious crime.
When the laws conflict, Wolf told the judge, the court must go with an interpretation of the law that favors the juvenile respondent. In this case, Wolf argued that the baseline for being charged as an adult should be set at 15.
But Assistant State's Attorney E. Wesley Adams argued that the laws don't conflict and give discretion to judges when it comes to waiving the juvenile status of a youth younger than 15.
Wolf and his co-counsel, public defender Kavita Gupta, also argued that in the event the judge rules that the law allows a 13-year-old to be tried as an adult, a jury not the judge should decide whether the boy in this case should be charged as an adult.
Gupta argued that the boy's right to due process includes having a jury decide issues that would increase the maximum penalty the boy could face. In this case, waiving the boy's juvenile status would raise the maximum sentence possible from imprisonment until age 21 to life in prison.
Adams disagreed, saying that the laws on the books give the judge the authority to make a waiver status ruling and that the boy has been granted all of his due process rights throughout the proceedings.
The boy was in court Monday morning, but did not speak.
The morning of Feb. 18, a Cheltenham Youth Facility staff member found Wheeling lying on the ground outside the building where she taught. The state medical examiner determined Wheeling died of multiple blunt-force trauma injuries, and she was found partially clothed.
Subsequent reports by both the state Department of Juvenile Services and an outside watchdog group on conditions at Cheltenham indicated that the juvenile charged was a student of Wheeling's. One report by watchdog Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit found that staff members' failure to follow certain safety protocols and a lack of security equipment created "a dangerous environment" at the time of Wheeling's death.
DJS fired and demoted several staff members following Wheeling's death for failing to follow safety protocols.