LARGO — Two weeks after police accused 13-year-old Javarick Henderson Jr. of killing his grandmother in late 2019, he was indicted by a grand jury and his case moved to adult court.
His public defenders have been trying to move it back to juvenile court ever since. At a hearing Tuesday, they ramped up their case, arguing before a judge that not only should the boy, now 15, be tried in juvenile court, but that the Florida law used to move him to the adult system is unconstitutional.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley will rule at a later date on that motion and two others filed by Javarick’s lawyers. But the ongoing debate underscores a longstanding tension in the legal system over what to do when a child is accused of a violent crime.
“Putting them in adult court is about as fair as putting me in center ice playing hockey,” said Assistant Public Defender Stacey Schroeder. “I wouldn’t know what to do.”
St. Petersburg police arrested Henderson in November 2019 after his grandmother, 56-year-old Gloria Davis, was stabbed to death in her home at 634 60th Ave. S. There were no signs of a break-in, and only Henderson and his brother, then 12, were home with her at the time.
The younger brother told police he heard Henderson make statements such as “I did something wrong” and “Don’t call 911 yet, I need time to think.” He was covered in blood and had cuts on his hands, according to police, which he told detectives was from self-harm because he couldn’t save his grandmother.
Henderson, who turned 15 on March 1, had no prior criminal history and no disciplinary issues at school. Since his arrest, he has ben held in an area for juveniles in the adult jail. One of his attorneys said he recently tested positive for COVID-19.
A grand jury indicted Henderson on a charge of first-degree murder, the state’s most serious homicide charge. That moved his case from juvenile court, where the goal is rehabilitation, to adult court, which is focused on punishment. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
An indictment is one of three pathways in Florida to move a child to adult court. Prosecutors can file the charges, although a child must be at least 14 to go that route. The third method is for a judge to make the call. That’s the gold standard for juvenile justice reform advocates who believe prosecutors have too much power in the process, but it’s rarely employed.
The bulk of Tuesday’s hearing dealt with a 36-page motion filed by Henderson’s lawyers arguing that Florida’s juvenile transfer law violates a child’s constitutional right to due process.
Several cases in the last 20 years have grappled with sentencing a juvenile in the adult system, with various courts ruling that the death penalty and some life sentences are considered cruel and unusual punishment for kids because their brains aren’t fully developed.
But Schroeder said those rulings have also hinted at concerns with the front-end of the process. In Henderson’s case, the motion says, the grand jury process did little to protect his rights:
“It is a non-adversarial proceeding cloaked in secrecy conducted in the absence of the child and his counsel,” it says, “with no required consideration” of factors a judge would normally use to consider whether to move a child to adult court.
“We need to take a look again back at how we get to adult court in the first place,” Schroeder said. “And it’s my position ... that it violates the defendant’s due process rights.”
Assistant State Attorney Amelia Hummel contended that the defense’s arguments have already been litigated and that Florida law remains constitutional.
“It is not unreasonable for the Legislature to treat children who commit serious crimes as adults,” she said, “in order to protect societal goals.”