Last week, we told you about the decision of the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office to name Miguel Angel Ita, fifteen, as the prosecutorial target in a fatal Lakewood stabbing and begin the procedure to try him as an adult.
That process has changed, and not for the better in the view of Jeffco DA Pete Weir. He laments the inability to use a method called "direct file" to simply move Ita's case directly to adult court. Get details and see photos and a video below.
The homicide victim was Jose Barrera-Mendoza, 22, and as we've reported, he narrowly evaded death once before -- in December 2009, when he was eighteen. According to KOAA-TV, Andrea Hernandez-Almanza was behind the wheel of a Ford pickup when the vehicle crashed on Interstate 25 south of Fountain. Hernandez-Almanza is said to have veered onto the right shoulder of the roadway, then over-corrected, causing the vehicle to flip. Abelardo Mendoza-Garcia, 46, was killed in the crash, while the other occupants survived, but barely; Barrera-Mendoza, along with Mendoza-Garcia and an unnamed twelve year old, were ejected. No one was wearing seat belts.
Barrera-Mendoza would not cheat the odds during the wee hours of April 21. At approximately 1:50 a.m., the Lakewood Police Department received a disturbance report that brought officers to the parking lot of an apartment complex at 285 South Jay Street.
Upon their arrival, they discovered three stabbing victims. One of the trio is said to have suffered relatively minor injuries, but the other pair were transported to a local hospital, where a man later identified as Barrera-Mendoza was pronounced dead.
Before long, a juvenile male was taken into custody -- and Weir's office has identified him as Ita. "The statute specifically provides that we are authorized to release the name of a juvenile charged with a Class 1 through Class 4 felony," Weir says. "Sometimes we do it because of the magnitude of the crime. We believe in protecting the rights of all defendants, particularly juveniles, but we also believe in the transparency of the system and the right of the public to know."
During a hearing last week, Ita was charged with first-degree murder, two counts of attempted first-degree murder, first-degree assault and second-degree assault, plus five violent-crime-related offenses and eight aggravated-juvenile-offender beefs. The total: eighteen.
This matter took place in juvenile court. But Weir has filed a motion requesting a transfer hearing, so that Ita can be charged as an adult.
Such a hearing wouldn't have been necessary under the previous version of a law known as "direct file." As our Alan Prendergast has reported, Colorado was one of just four states where prosecutors had discretion to prosecute offenders in the fourteen-to-seventeen age range in adult court without a judicial hearing on the issue. But those laws have changed, with the Ita case one of the first examples of how. Weir explains.
"There was quite a lot of debate during the last legislative session about a juvenile file bill called 12-1271," he says; we've included the document below. "It was a frankly philosophical separation-of-powers debate that restricted the ability of district attorneys to make decisions with respect to when a juvenile should be treated as an adult -- and one of the most significant aspects of it was a component that raised the age with which we could direct file to sixteen."
For those under age sixteen, like Ita, "the statute provides for a transfer hearing," Weir goes on. "If we choose to charge a juvenile as an adult, we have to justify it before a judge, who may say, 'The district attorney may proceed,' or 'No, I'm remanding this to juvenile court.'"
Critics of direct file feel this extra step is necessary because some DAs are too eager to charge juveniles as adults.
This argument is made in "Re-Directing Justice," a 2012 report from the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition. We've included it below as well -- but here's how our Alan Prendergast summarized its findings in a March 2012 post:
The CJDC report indicates that while direct file was intended to be used in only the most serious cases, it's often employed in mid-range felony cases against teens who have no prior criminal record -- and disproportionately in cases involving defendants of color. And in the vast majority of those cases, the juveniles never get their case heard by a judge and jury; a whopping 95 percent of direct-file cases result in plea bargains.
For his part, Weir insists that direct file decisions "are never made in a cavalier fashion. Other than the decision to seek the death penalty against someone, a district attorney makes no more serious decision than to try a juvenile as an adult -- and it's only done after a careful analysis of the individual history of the juvenile and the unique facts of the case before us.
"In my office, we'll have a staffing by very senior, very experienced lawyers to determine what is the right thing to do in each case," he continues. "And there are many instances where a juvenile may qualify for a request for a transfer hearing or direct file where we choose not to do it."
As an example, Weir cites "a case we had last year where a son drove a knife between the shoulder blades of his mother and almost killed her. We brought in the guardian ad litem, defense attorneys and our prosecutors, and we looked at the totality of the circumstances, and also took into account the mother and family's wishes. It clearly would have qualified at the time for direct file, but given all the dynamics of the case, we chose not to."
Such decisions are the rule, not the exceptions, Weir stresses. "I don't remember the exact numbers, but we prosecuted over 10,000 juvenile cases in the state last year and direct-filed something in the thirty-to-forty area. During the debate about legislation last year, we challenged the defense bar to show us cases where it was inappropriate for us to file as an adult -- to get specific. And that was generally not responded to."
Moreover, Weir says that "in 90 percent of cases where juveniles were prosecuted as adults, they wind up in the Youth Offender System. It's a wonderful system unique to Colorado where a young person up to the age of 22 who's convicted of an adult offense goes to YOS instead of the Department of Corrections. A normal sentence would be a six-year Youthful Offender System sentence with perhaps a fifteen-to-twenty year Department of Corrections sentence that's suspended on the condition that they comply with YOS. They'll still have a felony on their record, but YOS is designed to be more therapeutic than punitive, and the success rate has been pretty astounding."
Weir is afraid that the changes in direct file will "erode the Youth Offender System, because fewer appropriate juveniles would qualify for it." Moreover, the new requirement for a hearing slows down the process considerably.
"I would expect it will be at least a couple of months, if not several months down the road" before a transfer hearing for takes place in this instance. "Without commenting specifically about Ita, but statutorily, the standard is the seriousness of the offense, whether the protection of the community requires isolation of the juvenile beyond that afforded by juvenile facilities, whether the offense was against a person, whether the imposition of punishment is commensurate with the gravity of the crime, the impact of the offense on the victim, and whether the juvenile used a deadly weapon. And we also look at other factors within the statute, including any prior exposure to the juvenile system, any mental health issues, and any other type of mitigation the defense feels is relevant and should be presented to the court.
"The defense will do their own investigation with respect to other factors not related specifically to the factors of the crime," he adds. "A transfer hearing is a much broader inquiry into the whole social setting of the juvenile, so defense attorneys would normally search out school records, mental-health records, talk to associates and bring in as much evidence as they can to show it would be appropriate to retain jurisdiction in juvenile court."
Even so, Weir stresses that "expediency isn't the driving factor" in his objections to the changes in direct file -- especially when it comes to the Ita matter, which he sees as the most severe case to have surfaced since the age boost to sixteen. (He believes there's been one previous transfer hearing under the new rules -- a Boulder session in which the request to move to adult court was denied.) More important to him is "making sure we as a system get this right.
"Defense attorneys have a job to do, and I respect that," he says. "But I also have a job to do, and that's to protect the public and insure public safety. That's taken very seriously -- and only in the most serious cases do we go down the path of trying to charge a juvenile as an adult."
Look below to see a 9News report about the Ita prosecution, featuring an appearance by Weir, along with the direct-file law and the Colorado Juvenile Defenders Coalition report.
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More from our Mile High Murder archive: "Miguel Angel Ita, fifteen, should be charged as an adult with Lakewood murder, DA says (73)."