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Stateside Podcast: Fifteen and charged as an adult

Bill Oxford

What happens when children are charged for crimes as adults?

In the wake of the deadly Oxford high school shooting, that’s the question many are trying to answer. At 15 years old, the suspect will stand trial as an adult, something attorney Deborah LaBelle is no stranger to.

Although she’s not working on the Oxford case, she’s spent many years defending juveniles who have been sent to prison — many of them with life sentences.

“At the same time as recognizing the horrible acts,” said LaBelle, “we try to find some understanding of how a 15-year-old could come to this point.”

At that age, the brain isn’t fully developed: in fact, one of the last parts to develop is the one in charge of impulse control. Still, the suspect will be held to account, and he's not the only one.

After last week’s tragic incident, his parents were charged with involuntary manslaughter and the suspect was charged with murder and terrorism, among other charges. An adult sentenced with murder may spend anywhere between 25 years and life without parole in prison, LaBelle said.

Labelle says this could be considered when the suspect is on trial, but there are questions about his legal defense. While the suspect has a court-appointed lawyer, his parents have hired a criminal defense attorney for themselves, and many are asking why they would hire their own attorney without doing the same for their son.

It's hard to say if a private attorney would be better than a court-appointed one, LaBelle said. Even most experienced attorneys lack experience with the complexities of this case, like representing defendants with terrorism charges.

“I’d be surprised if one attorney alone could handle this case,” she said. “It is about as complicated as it gets. Both because of all of the entities that are involved, given the mental health questions, given the charges that are leveled. And the stakes are very, very high.”

LaBelle recognizes that the crimes are heinous, but when it comes to defending the accused, she takes a more nuanced view.

“It may comfort us to label him a monster. But if we let it rest there, that monsters just happen and there’s nothing we can do about it, then we really deprive ourselves of trying to figure out how to prevent this in the future,” she said. “If we don’t acknowledge the truth of all entities involved, and if we don’t acknowledge that this was a child, we can’t go forward and try to figure out how to fix this.”

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Erin Allen comes to Michigan Radio as a new producer for the station’s Stateside show. She is an experienced communicator driven by her curiosity about stories of people.
Claire Murashima is a production assistant for Stateside.