Ten days after St. Petersburg police accused a 13-year-old boy of fatally stabbing his grandmother, the area’s top criminal justice officials sparred over where he should go.
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe sought to keep the child in custody at all costs, even if that meant asking a grand jury to indict him as an adult.
Public Defender Bob Dillinger, whose office is representing Javarick Henderson Jr., wanted to keep the case in juvenile court while they learned more about the child’s mental health and background.
The grand jury indicted Henderson on a charge of first-degree murder on Dec. 6, locking him into an adult criminal justice system that experts say cannot address the needs of a 13-year-old.
The disagreement between Pinellas’ top prosecutor and public defender could prove to be pivotal in determining the fate of the 13-year-old boy and underscores the tension in the criminal justice system over what to do with young children who stand accused of serious crimes.
A child’s brain hasn’t fully developed, making them more likely to act impulsively than adults, experts say. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty and some life sentences are unconstitutional for juveniles. Those and other rulings indicate the system should treat children differently than adults.
Yet, a little more than 1,000 Florida children were transferred to the adult system last fiscal year, Department of Juvenile Justice data shows. The number has decreased over the last five years, but juvenile justice reform advocates believe it’s still too many kids.
“When you put that kid in an adult system, you’re basically throwing them away,” said Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s not designed to make sure that kid gets better.”
So what should the system do with a 13-year-old accused of killing his own grandmother?
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Adults accused of murder go through a well-worn process. They’re arrested and booked into jail, usually held without bail while they await trial. That can take years.
When a child is arrested, they’re sent to the juvenile justice system that, while flawed, is intended to rehabilitate them. That could lead to a short stay in juvenile detention, and even house arrest, until a juvenile judge decides their fate. They could be sent to a residential treatment program for weeks or months, or get probation and be sent home.
The process is murkier for a child accused of a violent crime.
On the night of Nov. 24, police say Henderson was staying with his grandmother, Gloria Davis, at her home at 634 60th Ave. S in St. Petersburg.
Officers were called to the home at about 3:30 a.m. and found Davis, 56, dead of multiple stab wounds.
Police arrested the boy that day on a second-degree murder charge, and he was booked into a juvenile detention facility. His arrest report said he was found covered in blood, with cuts on his hands.
He told his 12-year-old half-brother — the only other person in the home at the time — that he “did something bad and not to call 911 ... because he needed time to think,” his arrest report said.
It did not shed light on a motive, or what events led to the stabbing. Davis was a beloved mail carrier, friend and relative. Her grandson had no prior criminal history or disciplinary issues at school, police said.
A senior assistant public defender pointed to Henderson’s lack of history in a memo sent to McCabe and his top deputy, Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett. She urged them to “not rush an indictment and that you permit time to investigate fully and consider mitigation prior to presenting this to the grand jury.”
Generally, children can only be held in juvenile detention for up to 21 days. But the public defender’s office said it was willing to waive his release and keep him in juvenile detention indefinitely. There, he would have access to mental health and education services specifically for kids.
They wanted prosecutors to spend more time examining factors that could affect the case, such as Henderson’s family background, his competency to stand trial and his chances of being rehabilitated.
“Our office has grave concerns that he is NOT competent at this time,” the lawyer wrote. The letter does not elaborate on those concerns.
Public defenders sent the memo Dec. 5, the day before the case was scheduled to go before a grand jury. Prosecutors felt blindsided, Bartlett said, as though the public defender’s office was dictating terms. Prosecutors also felt that the proposal did not guarantee the 13-year-old would stay locked up.
“I have a problem with the way it was presented, and I also have a problem that it takes control away from the state attorney,” Bartlett told the Tampa Bay Times.
“He’s not a little boy in the sense that he’s of big physical stature, and he was capable of doing this very horrific act to this woman,” he said of Henderson, whose arrest report describes him as 5-foot-8 and 200 pounds.
So they moved forward with the indictment for first-degree murder. If convicted, he would face life in prison.
His case was transferred to adult court, and Henderson was moved to the Pinellas County jail, where he is living in a wing with other kids.
Dillinger, the public defender, chalked it up to “a failure to communicate.”
He said his office’s proposal “was interpreted by the state as almost an ultimatum which wasn’t the intent at all.”
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The route the 13-year-old’s case took to adult court is rare. Almost all transfers happen through a “direct file,” in which the State Attorney’s Office has the sole discretion to charge a kid as an adult. That method has an age floor of 14, per Florida law.
Another method is judicial review, or when a judge makes the call. But that’s rarely employed. The grand jury route happens when a child of any age is accused of an offense punishable by death or life in prison.
Judicial review is the gold standard for reform advocates, said McCoy of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He also works with the nonpartisan coalition No Place for a Child, aimed at reducing adult transfers in Florida.
The grand jury process heavily favors the state. Jurors only hear from prosecutors and the evidence and witnesses they present, said Stephen Harper, a law professor at Florida International University and a former Miami-Dade public defender.
“There’s an old expression,” Harper said. “‘A grand jury would indict a ham sandwich.’”
Only 2 percent of Florida kids transferred to adult court last year were ages 13 or 14, a proportion that’s held steady over the past five years, according to state data. Nearly all the rest were 15 and older.
That holds true for the Pinellas jail’s juvenile population. Henderson is the youngest of a handful of inmates. The others are ages 16 and 17.
They sleep in their own cells at night, in a pod centered around a day room, according to the Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail. They attend classes during the day in a classroom connected to the pod, taught by school district teachers. A deputy always keeps watch over the pod.
The children see the same medical professionals as adult inmates, unless they have a condition that requires a specialist.
They “never have any contact with an adult inmate whatsoever, sight or sound,” Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.
Putting a kid in an institutional setting is traumatizing, and it’s difficult to predict the long-term consequences, said Marsha Levick, chief legal officer for the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
Some adult jails hold kids in solitary confinement, which can severely traumatize a child. But even with a juvenile wing, there are concerns about diet, mental health counseling and education, Levick said.
Society, she said, “should be attentive to how we treat children who commit even the most heinous crimes.”
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In Florida, once a child is placed in the adult criminal justice system, they cannot be sent back to the juvenile system. But that doesn’t mean if Henderson is convicted that he will spend the rest of his life in prison, or face adult sanctions.
Prosecutors could reduce the first-degree murder charge to a lesser offense, such as manslaughter. Bartlett said his office would be open to that, depending on how the case shakes out.
That would give Henderson more options if he’s convicted, including being sentenced as a juvenile or as a youthful offender, which blends adult and juvenile sanctions.
Kids who commit violent crimes can be rehabilitated, said Kathleen Heide, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida and expert in juvenile homicides, specifically the killing of a close relative. The part of the brain responsible for critical thinking and decision-making doesn’t fully develop until you’re 23 to 25, she said.
“Kids are much more likely to be influenced by the more emotional part of the brain,” Heide said. “They tend to be on average more impulsive than adults.”
She said there are generally four pathways that can lead a kid to kill: extreme abuse or neglect, severe mental illness, dangerously antisocial behavior or underlying rage.
Assessing the child, then gearing treatment and consequences toward the underlying problem, is key to helping them, Heide said.
That’s the best-case scenario for a child convicted of a violent crime, she said. The worst case is a long sentence in adult prison, where it’s unlikely he’d have access to any of those services.
“All of that has to be worked through: the fear, the pain, the anger, what’s happened, the shame,” Heide said, “and bring the individual to a place where he sees himself as accountable for what he’s done and takes responsibility and feels remorse.”