This week, the Denver District Attorney's Office announced that it had charged Merhawi Ocbamichael as an adult for a series of aggravated robberies that took place when he was seventeen.
It's the sort of decision that won't be made in quite the same way should legislation to reform the system known as "direct file" be signed into law.
Ocbamichael's crimes are certainly serious, as outlined in the arrest affidavit on view below. On December 20, according to the document, a Denver Police officer responded to a Shell gas station on East Hampden that had just been robbed. He subsequently obtained video surveillance footage that showed a young black male wearing a white hoodie, black jeans and a turquoise bandanna that didn't quite cover the lower half of his face. He packed a handgun with a long barrel and a brown handle.
The cops soon concluded that the star of this scene had appeared in armed robberies at other venues over the preceding several days -- six, in fact, including at a 7-Eleven, where the security system captured what's described as a good quality shot of the suspect's face.
Shortly thereafter, an anonymous tipster fingered Ocbamichael for the crimes -- and after obtaining his pic from the DMV, a witness identified him from a photo lineup. With probable cause established, police arrested Ocbamichael for the crime with his parents present, and he is said to have confessed to committing the robberies.
Why charge Ocbamichael, who turned eighteen in February, as an adult?
"Each decision to charge a juvenile as an adult is made based on the specific facts of each individual case," notes Denver DA's office spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough, corresponding via e-mail. "The decision to charge Ocbamichael as an adult was based on many factors, including the nature of the crime (armed robbery with a weapon), the extent of the crime (a series of armed robberies, sometimes two in a day), his age at the time (17, just a few months shy of being 18), and whether in light of all the circumstances the juvenile system or the Youthful Offender System has the more appropriate resources. It was determined that charging him as an adult would be more appropriate."
Such conclusions have become the subject of much debate in these parts. As Alan Prendergast reported last month, Colorado is one of just four states where DA's can charge juvies between the ages of fourteen and seventeen without justifying the action in a judicial hearing. The process is called direct file, and it was passed following a 1993 crime wave that became known as the "Summer of Violence."
Does it work? "Re-Directing Justice," a report from the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition, maintains that in many instances, it doesn't. "Contrary to what lawmakers intended, the direct-file law has done little to deter juvenile crime," the authors conclude. "A large body of research shows that prosecuting children as adults makes it less likely they'll be rehabilitated and become productive members of society. The departure from juvenile treatment is damaging kids, creating redundancies in state services, and jeopardizing community safety."
In his post, Prendergast points to House Bill 1271, a proposal that "limits the range of crimes that can be direct filed into adult court to the most serious violent offenses, such as murder and rape." And the legislation has cleared two significant hurdles. The Colorado Statesman reports that despite passionate debate on either side, the measure recently passed the Senate after previously winning House approval. That means the only thing standing between it and becoming Colorado law is Governor John Hickenlooper's signature.
Should he sign, district attorneys in cases like Ocbamichael's will have to go through a judicial hearing before being able to decide that accused offenders should be treated as adults.
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Here's a larger look at Ocbamichael's mug shot, followed by the aforementioned arrest affidavit.
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More from our Follow That Story archive: "Juveniles prosecuted as adults: Colorado's hardline approach not working, report says."