Crime

How Alleged Hinkley High Shooters Were Charged as Adults and Conviction Risks

Booking photos for Larry Jefferson and Dalen Brewer. No photo for Diego Flores was made available.
Booking photos for Larry Jefferson and Dalen Brewer. No photo for Diego Flores was made available. Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office
On November 30, the 18th Judicial DA's office formally charged three sixteen-year-olds — Larry Jefferson, Dalen Brewer and Diego Flores — as adults in the November 19 shooting in the parking lot of Aurora's Hinkley High School that wounded three.

This decision wasn't unexpected. Prosecutors are more likely to accuse teens of adult crimes in high-profile cases, and the recent rash of shootings involving young people in Aurora certainly qualifies. Fifteen youths were shot in the community over the two weeks between November 19 and 28, and one was killed. The latter, identified as seventeen-year-old Peyton Blitstein, is believed to have exchanged shots with Adam Holen, a former Greenwood Village Police officer who has not yet been charged in relation to the incident.

As for Jefferson, Brewer and Flores, they were charged under a system so complicated that the district attorney's office provided a primer to help explain it. Moreover, charging teens as adults for crimes that don't result in death is rare — and convictions at that level are far from guaranteed.

Jefferson and Brewer are both scheduled for a status conference on December 15. Jefferson faces the following charges: four counts of attempted first-degree murder; one count each of first-degree assault, second-degree assault, using a prohibited large-capacity magazine during a crime, and possession of a weapon on school grounds, as well as two crime-of-violence sentence enhancers. Brewer is looking at four counts of attempted first-degree murder; one count each of first-degree assault, second-degree assault and possession of a weapon on school grounds; and two crime-of-violence sentence enhancers. Flores faces the same charges as Brewer, but his status conference won't take place until March 7, 2022.

Whenever a juvenile suspect is taken into custody, according to the DA's office, law enforcement agencies are bound by the Colorado Children's Code, which states in part: "The information that is open to the public...regarding a juvenile who is charged with a delinquent act shall not include the juvenile's name,
birth date, or photograph." However, the explainer continues, "some cases are eligible for direct filing into district court — this is what is typically called 'charging as an adult' by the news media." The statute in question states: "A juvenile may be charged by the direct filing of information in the district court or by
indictment only if the juvenile is sixteen years of age or older at the time of the commission of the alleged offense and...is alleged to have committed a class 1 or class 2 felony."

Direct filing is a controversial approach explored in detail in this 2010 Westword report. Then-Colorado Juvenile Defender Division chair Kim Dvorchak noted that the direct-file regulations were put in place amid growing concerns about crime more than a decade earlier. "What had been happening before was that when a child committed a serious crime, the DA would have to petition the juvenile court judge to waive jurisdiction and send the case to adult district court," she told Westword. "In the 1990s, crime went up, and the judicial transfer process was perceived as cumbersome. You had to have a hearing. There were defense lawyers involved, and they might get evaluations and evidence. It was like a mini-trial."

As a result, the Colorado Legislature passed laws that let prosecutors skip the hearings. "The direct-file statute relieves a prosecutor of having to prove the child is no longer amenable to treatment in the juvenile system," Dvorchak continued. "Even when prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, they have to give notice. It's a separate sentencing hearing, and a jury decides whether or not to impose the death penalty. Even that level of due process is absent from the direct-file statute."

The direct-file law was tweaked in 2012 to address some of the issues raised by Dvorchak. The most substantive change allows the attorneys for underage defendants to file a motion to transfer the case to juvenile court. At that point, a judge must set what's known as a reverse-transfer hearing to decide whether the matter should be heard in juvenile court.

Once the decision is made to direct-file an eligible juvenile defendant, however, new rules apply. Specifically, the defendant's arrest and criminal records can be made public, though individuals younger than eighteen are still held in juvenile facilities, not adult jails.

Sixteen-year-olds were last charged as adults in the metro area back in February, when Kevin Bui and Gavin Seymour were charged as adults in connection with the arson deaths of five people in Denver the previous August. Before that, juveniles had been charged as adults at least fifteen times in the previous thirty years, including nine times during the 1990s in cases that all dealt with fatalities.

Winning convictions for teens charged as adults for actions that don't involve homicide can be tough. Merhawi Ocbamichael was seventeen in 2012 when the Denver District Attorney's Office announced that it had filed adult counts against him in relation to a series of aggravated robberies. But there was a subsequent change in prosecution strategy, and Ocbamichael was processed through Colorado's Youth Offender System (YOS) program.

A different kind of compromise was used in the cases of Sienna Johnson and Brooke Higgins, who were hit with adult charges for allegedly conceiving of a 2015 Columbine-style murder plot at Mountain Vista High School when they were sixteen. Johnson and Higgins initially fought the adult designation, but they eventually pleaded guilty to counts that straddled the juvenile and adult systems. They were sentenced to stints in Youth Corrections followed by supervised adult parole.

And then there was Tara Perry, who was given 66 years in prison for attempted murder, robbery, assault and other crimes spearheaded by her older, suicidal boyfriend when she was sixteen. As Alan Prendergast outlined in a 2012 cover story titled "The Girl Who Fell to Earth," her sentence was later reduced to forty years — but it was "still the longest of any juvenile in the state who didn't actually kill or maim anyone." The following year, 2013, Perry was paroled for her actions in Colorado, after which she served an additional three-year sentence in Wyoming for a Cheyenne home invasion that was part of the rampage.

We don't yet know the fates of Jefferson, Brewer and Flores. But it's still clearly a long way from arrest to a sentence in an adult prison.

This post has been updated to add details about the legal process that created reverse-transfer hearings.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts