Court Ruling Could Change How Teens Are Certified As Adults in Criminal Cases

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In late 2008, Harris County prosecutors sought to convince a judge to transfer 16-year-old Cameron Moon's murder case from juvenile to adult court. At Moon's certification hearing, prosecutor's called only one witness: the Deer Park police detective who investigated the shooting death of Christopher Seabrook during a drug deal gone awry.

Moon's attorney, however, called several witnesses. Family, friends, and acquaintances testified to the teenager's troubled upbringing and fractured family life. One worker within the juvenile justice system called Moon "one of the best kids [to] come through as far as his intelligence and obedience and the way he carries himself in the facility."

Forensic psychiatrist Seth Silverman called Moon a "dependent, easily influenced" kid who "would probably benefit from placement in an environment specifically designed for adolescent offenders." The adult criminal justice system afforded few options for teens like Moon, Silverman testified, saying adult prison could very well be even more destructive for the Deer Park teenager. Silverman told the court that Moon had already responded to therapy during his short stint at the juvenile detention center.

Unmoved, the judge transferred the case to the adult criminal justice system (adult jail, court and prison) citing Moon's prior run-in with the juvenile justice system -- the teenager had previously been caught keying another student's car. The judge then wrote a boilerplate order that, in parts, simply recited the state statute for certifying juveniles for trial as adults in criminal cases.

In a landmark ruling Wednesday, the state's highest criminal court upheld a lower court ruling that overturns the 35-year prison sentence Moon was handed at trial after being certified as an adult and convicted of murder. Moon's case is a major development -- the first in a quarter century to have successfully challenged his certification as an adult -- and could change how prosecutors try teens as adults going forward.

As we reported back in 2009, Harris County prosecutors in the past were almost always successful in transferring teenagers to adult court. From 1999 to 2008, judges certified 93 percent of such cases. Once certified as adults, teenagers were held in isolation in the county jail instead of inside youth lockup. This was despite research showing that juveniles are much more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail than in a juvenile detention center, and that they are much more likely to kill themselves in isolation than in general population.

Under current law, teens under 17 can be certified to stand trial as adults, but can later appeal that certification once they're convicted in an adult court.

Moon's pro-bono appellate attorneys have argued that the judge in Moon's ignored the evidence presented at his certification hearing and that the teenager's case was emblematic of a larger problem: a system that too often rubber-stamps certification requests from prosecutors to try teenagers as adults.

In the majority opinion, CCA Judge Tom Price wrote that that the court in Moon's case "made no case-specific findings of fact" regarding the seriousness of the teenager's crime. The evidence presented at Moon's transfer hearing failed to give "a valid reason for waiving juvenile-court jurisdiction," Price wrote.

Harris County District Attorney's Office spokesman Jeff McShan said the office is "disappointed" with the court's ruling Wednesday. McShan said the DA's office is reviewing the case and is considering bringing it before a judge to re-certify Moon for another trial in adult court.

In a statement, Jack Carnegie, who led the legal team appealing Moon's case, said juvenile court's logic in Moon's case "was the very antithesis of the kind of individualized assessment due juveniles in the system." Carnegie says court's ruling Wednesday will change the landscape of juvenile certification proceedings in Texas.

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