Jury trials are one of the few U.S. constitutional rights accorded to adults but not juveniles. Thirteen states have chosen to allow jury trials for juveniles, but the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled that jury trials must be awarded constitutionally.
In this particular case, attorneys for the youths had argued that they deserved a jury trial because they were being subjected to a process very much like the adult criminal-justice system. Louisiana's juvenile justice system, they said, had been eroded in the past few decades by new statutes that, among other things, stripped away a juvenile's confidentiality/anonymity for certain violent offenses.
As a result of that legislation, Johnson and Anderson were referred to by name in worldwide news coverage after the lunchtime shooting on Sept. 26, 2000. If the youths are exposed to the judgment of the community before their trial, argued their attorneys, why shouldn't the community judge them during their trial, via a jury?
The 14-page majority decision, written by Justice Jeffrey Victory, says that the juvenile system doesn't have to mirror the adult system because the juvenile courts offers separate and distinct advantages, such as less-punitive sentencing and a focus on rehabilitation. In his conclusion, Justice Victory quotes that court's 1998 decision, In Re C.B.: "While we recognize that the Louisiana juvenile justice system is far from perfect, we are 'not yet ready to spell the doom of the juvenile court system by requiring jury trials in juvenile adjudications.'"
Justice Bernette Johnson disagreed, in a nine-page dissent outlining the significant changes seen by the juvenile system since 1971, when the U.S. Supreme Court held in the landmark case McKeiver vs. Pennsylvania that the Constitution does not guarantee a right to jury trial.
First Assistant District Attorney Tim McElroy says that he was confident that the state would triumph in this case. "While I do not find the majority opinion remarkable," he says, "I do think that it was exactly correct."
Not surprisingly, the ruling brought disappointment from Darrell Johnson's defense team, Derwyn Bunton of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and Harold DuCloux III. Bunton, who argued the case in front of the high court in January, says that they are still deciding whether to file with the U.S. Supreme Court. Barring that possibility, the trial of Johnson and Anderson will be held in front of Judge Taylor as soon as a few outstanding motions are resolved.
Bunton notes that last week's decision does reaffirm the basic idea of the juvenile-justice system and a juvenile's right to rehabilitation. But he adds that it did not address the realities of the local juvenile-justice system, which in 1997 was called "most troubled in the nation" by The New York Times. "I do think," says Bunton, "that they (the court) are engaged in a legal fiction by deciding that the juvenile system still exists as this benevolent procedure."
Marsha Levick agrees. Levick, an attorney for the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, argued this case on behalf of ten organizations that had jointly filed an Amicus Curiae (friend-of-the-court) brief in support of the juveniles. Levick says that she sees "an unnatural anxiety" about jury trials in juvenile proceedings. A jury in juvenile court would decide guilt or innocence but wouldn't, Levick emphasizes, change "what everybody acknowledges matters most" -- the ability of a juvenile-court judge to tailor the sentencing to each child's specific needs.
A jury would, however, have an enormous impact in another way, says Levick. "A jury enhances fact-finding," she says, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court found in a 1968 landmark case that a jury was "fundamental to the American scheme of [adult criminal] justice." At the time, jury trials were only allowed in this state when a sentence of hard labor or death was possible. But in Duncan vs. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court found that Louisiana was denying its (adult) citizens a fundamental constitutional right.
"Here we are in Louisiana again," says Levick. This time, she says, juveniles are the citizens being denied.