On Monday, Jan. 14, the Louisiana Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that could give two local ninth graders the first-ever Louisiana jury trial for juveniles. The young men, Darrell Johnson and Alfred Anderson, have been charged in connection with the lunchtime shooting at Carter G. Woodson Middle School on Sept. 26, 2000.
Currently, all juveniles receive a trial held before a lone judge who acts as both judge and jury -- he or she hears the evidence, decides on the verdict, and then hands down the sentence. The lone-judge structure dates back to the turn of the century, when juvenile courts began in America. From their inception, juvenile courts were designed not to punish but rather to put wayward youth back onto the right path. The proceedings were private and presided over by a judge who was supposed to act more like a kindly parent than a pillar of criminal justice.
That original structure has changed over the years. "Tough-on-crime" laws made juvenile court more punitive by spelling out mandatory sentences for violent and drug-using juveniles. And in a series of decisions in the 1960s and '70s, the U.S. Supreme Court has stated that juveniles have most of the same legal rights as adults, including the right to a defense attorney, the right to cross-examine witnesses, and protection against self-incrimination. The High Court stopped short of granting juveniles the right to jury trials.
Then the privacy of juvenile court came into question. In the early 1990s, Louisiana -- like more than 40 other states -- passed legislation that allowed the release of a juvenile's name if that juvenile was charged with a violent crime. The law also opened the courtroom to the public for that juvenile's proceedings. And so, in September 2000, when Anderson and Johnson were arrested and charged, their images and names were released to the media and used on TV and in newspapers around the world.
That public treatment should go both ways, say attorneys for accused shooter Darrell Johnson. If Johnson is going to be trotted out in front of the people, they say, then he also deserves to be judged by the people. Specifically, he deserves a trial by jury -- one of the only adult rights that is not currently accorded to kids.
This spring, Johnson's pro bono defense team -- Derwyn Bunton from the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and Harold DuCloux III from the St. Thomas Community Law Center -- entered a motion to that regard in the court of Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Judge C. Hearn Taylor; the motion was joined by attorneys for Alfred Anderson, who is accused of passing a gun to Johnson through a gap in the school's chain-link fence. In June, Taylor ruled in favor of the motion in an 11-page decision.
The District Attorney's office filed an appeal. First Assistant District Attorney Tim McElroy said that he was sure that their view will prevail because of Louisiana Children's Code Statute 808, which he says stipulated that, for juveniles, "all rights are preserved except a jury trial in juvenile cases."
Bunton will be giving the oral argument on behalf of the teenagers Anderson and Johnson. He says that a ruling in their favor could range from one that says that every Louisiana child has a right to a jury trial to one that says that a judge has the discretion to order a jury trial.
Then there's another possible outcome, says Bunton: "They also could say they don't have a right to a jury trial and are prohibited from asking. Which would be interesting, because I don't think they can outright prohibit it. If they ruled that way, an absolute prohibition, we would take that all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court."