RALEIGH — The 13-year-old and 15-year-old detained by police last week in connection with the shooting death of 16-year-old Fernando Garibay-Benitez are in many ways still children.
But if a Wake County judge decides late next week that prosecutors have probable cause to try the boys for first-degree murder, the two will be tossed into an adult court system that gives little lenience for their youth.
As juveniles, their names are kept secret, a public and legal acknowledgment of their tender age.
But if the boys cases are transferred to adult court as state law requires for anyone 13 or older charged with first-degree murder they could suddenly be treated similarly to grown men.
Law enforcement officers have released scant details of what happened on Aug. 15 when Benitez was shot and killed near the Lexington on the Green apartments on Rolling Green Court in North Raleigh.
Garibay-Benitez, a rising sophomore at Millbrook High School who, according to friends, was a soccer enthusiast, was dead when police arrived.
Investigators have not publicly revealed a motive for the shooting, nor have police stated whether they think it was gang-related.
Garibay-Benitez lived in a mobile home park off Buffalo Road in North Raleigh, about three miles from where he died.
Investigators were led to the two teens after finding a minivan that a 911 caller reported seeing at the crime scene.
The caller told emergency dispatchers Garibay-Benitez had been shot in the head.
William Lassiter, a spokesman for the state division of juvenile justice, said it is rare to see such young defendants in a first-degree murder case.
In North Carolina courts, anyone 16 or older is treated as an adult.
The state database on juvenile crime only goes back to 2009, Lassiter said, so he had difficulty determining how many other 13-year-olds had been charged similarly.
In 2007, a 13-year-old boy was charged with first-degree murder in Lee County for the shooting death of a 33-year-old woman he lived with.
In 2009, according to Lassiter, eight defendants younger than 16 were convicted of murder. In 2010, nine juveniles were convicted or murder and in 2011, seven were.
Outcry toughens laws
State law has not always allowed for juveniles accused of felonies to be tried in the adult court system. The law was changed in the early 1990s after a widespread hue and cry over the sentence given a seventh-grader who used a hammer to fatally bludgeon a 92-year-old widow while stealing her car.
The seventh-grader, who reportedly showed little remorse for his crime, was released from a youth detention center after his 18th birthday.
State laws were toughened after that.
Its just so classic that we change our laws after a single heinous crime, when the public is up in arms, said Tamar Birckhead, an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who specializes in juvenile justice issues. So many people are affected by this.
Eleven percent of the violent crime in the country is committed by offenders younger than 18, Birckhead said.
The boys accused last week of first-degree murder are being held in a youth detention center as they await hearings in their case. They must take classes and can seek counseling while detained.
Though they will be kept separate from adult prisoners for a while, they could spend the rest of their lives in prison if convicted.
But a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this summer gives a judge more leeway in deciding a sentence. They can now consider sentences of less than life in prison without parole. Adults convicted of first degree murder in North Carolina are sentenced to either life in prison without the possibility of parole or death.
Since the 1990s, when there was a push across the country to treat youthful offenders as adults in the criminal justice system, there has been a swing back to offer more leniency.
In North Carolina, many juvenile justice advocates have been pushing to set 18 as the age at which a defendant can be considered an adult in the legal system.
Research shows more and more that the brain undergoes significant neural development during adolescence.
Teenagers brains are still developing adult reasoning capabilities, juvenile justice advocates contend, and environmental influences can have a large impact on that development.
Adolescents are particularly susceptible to making the kinds of poor decisions that get them involved in the criminal justice system.
Juvenile justice systems are set up to give young offenders a chance for a clean slate, typically shielding criminal records from public scrutiny and offering a much more hands-on approach to intervention.
There is plenty of social science evidence and theres plenty of neuroscience evidence that their brains are not fully developed and theyre not really able to have the capability to understand the nature of their actions, said Birckhead.