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June 7, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
On Sunday, Feb. 19, children on an energetic quest for more tickets and better prizes at Chuck E. Cheese’s in Columbia were interrupted by gunfire. Someone had unloaded six to eight rounds outside the restaurant. Inside, terrified customers ducked under tables to hide from the unseen assailant. Police later said surveillance video showed a man who appeared to be the target running from the front of the restaurant.Related Articles
More than a month later, 16-year-old James Miller was certified as an adult. He has since been charged with three felonies related to the incident and is being held on $300,000 bond at Boone County Jail. James is the only juvenile among the 196 inmates at the facility.
In a February press conference following a string of shootings, including the Chuck E. Cheese’s incident, Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton called those responsible for the violence “thugs.”
But there’s another word for James. He’s a child.
Under Missouri statute, offenders under the age of 17 are considered children, and their offenses are typically handled in juvenile court. Missouri has been nationally recognized in recent years for its successful juvenile justice system. But when a child is forced to stand trial as an adult, he or she doesn’t benefit from that system.
Felony offenses open the door for adult certification, which allows for the prosecution of children in adult courts and confinement in adult prisons. James’ charges were serious enough to invoke a mandatory adult certification hearing, and because the court dismissed his petition to remain in juvenile court, James will be tried as an adult. Each of his charges carries a five-year minimum sentence — the standard for class B felonies in Missouri.
Certifying juveniles as adults has been uncommon in Columbia. Judge Leslie Schneider handles adult certification hearings in Missouri’s 13th circuit, which includes Boone and Callaway counties. The 13th circuit had 10 certification hearings in 2011, with only three juveniles certified as adults. “We really don’t certify very many,” Schneider says. “There may be one or two, but they’re really, really down.”
Tracy McClard, the founder of Families and Friends Organizing to Reform Juvenile Justice, says she hopes to see that number continue to drop statewide. Her son Jonathan pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and received a 30-year sentence following a 2007 shooting in Jackson. He was 16 years old. Too young, Tracy says, to be placed in adult jail.
“Missouri has this Missouri Model that other states try to copy,” she says. “Part of it is really good. Part of it is something other states should copy. But the bad part about it is not all kids have access to the system.”
Jonathan was held in a county juvenile facility while the courts worked out whether to charge him as an adult. While there, he was put on a number of psychoactive medications to treat mental health issues, Tracy says, adding that she believes his problems were a normal response to his situation and not clinical issues requiring medication. The drugs led to hallucinations such as visions of blood raining from the sky, she says. But she could not do anything about it. He was under state control. The only thing she remembers being asked about was his asthma inhaler.
“Seriously? His asthma inhaler is something that he’s used his entire life, and you’re asking me if he can have that?” Tracy says. “But you’re ignoring me and telling me I have no authority about all these other things you’re making him take? It just blew my mind.”
Then, just as quickly as the medications began, he was taken off them again when the court ruled on his adult certification and sent him to an adult facility. Prison policy, Tracy says. The abrupt change led to more issues, and Tracy says her son began having thoughts of suicide.
Less than a week after his 17th birthday and only days before being transferred to Southeast Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison in Charleston, Jonathan hanged himself.
Her son’s death led to Tracy’s campaign to change the way Missouri metes out justice to teenage offenders.
She doesn’t think he should have gotten away with a slap on the wrist. His offense was serious, and she says she understands that. Ideally he would have been put in the Dual Jurisdiction Program in the Missouri Division of Youth Services, she says. Dual jurisdiction allows an offender to remain in the juvenile system — the lauded Missouri Model — up to his or her 21st birthday, at which point he or she will be transferred to the adult system.
The judge in Jonathan’s case ruled against the dual jurisdiction option and instead gave him the maximum sentence.
Not all adult certification stories end like Jonathan’s.
On a fall day in 2006, Owen Welty was deer hunting on a neighbor’s property. He says he overheard an argument in the distance and then heard a gunshot. Later that day, he and his family made a grisly discovery. Their 64-year-old neighbor, Don McCollough, had been shot.
“We went up to check on the guy and found him dead,” Owen says. “We told the cops, trying to do the right thing, but it steered the wrong direction.”
Police, who had no other leads, accused Owen of murdering the man. After a month in a juvenile facility, the court certified Owen to stand trial as an adult, and he spent the next 26 months in adult prisons waiting for his trial.
Owen was 13 years old.
“I think every fear goes through you,” Lori Welty, Owen’s mother, says. “Can he fight for himself? Can he fight adult men off? Can he make it? Will he live through it? That’s something we all worried about.”
Owen finally got his trial after two years, and in less than a week, he was acquitted. On Feb. 12, 2009, Owen was deemed a free man — and, at 15, once again a child in the law’s eyes. McCollough’s case is still unsolved.
In May, Owen graduated from high school, and he is exploring college options. But his life will never be the same.
“I think about it every day,” Owen says of his time in prison. “I have flashbacks. I’m not going to say I’ll never get back to normal, but it’s going to be in my mind every day I live. ... You’re taking a kid and turning him into an adult. You’re questioning him when he’s not capable of answering the questions you’re asking. That’s always going to be in the back of my mind. I have to live with it.”