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Raleigh mass shooter will be prosecuted as an adult, but sentenced as a juvenile

A gavel in a courtroom.
Francis Twitty/ iStockPhoto.com
Under North Carolina criminal justice law, a juvenile is anyone between the ages of 10 and 17 and is subject to a different sentencing scheme than adults. But that doesn't mean young defendants don't end up before judges and juries essentially as adults.

News outlets have identified the alleged shooter who killed five people and wounded two others in Raleigh last week. His name is Austin Thompson, and he is a 15-year-old whose victims included his older brother. Despite Thompson's status as a juvenile, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman plans to move the teen's case to superior court.

Under North Carolina criminal justice law, a juvenile is anyone between the ages of 10 and 17 and is subject to a different sentencing scheme than adults. But that doesn't mean young defendants don't end up before judges and juries essentially as adults.

"There's nothing about the recent changes to state law that has made it any harder for the prosecution if it wants, or the court, to treat a case like this in superior court," said Barbara Fedders, a UNC-Chapel Hill Law professor and director of the school's Youth Justice Clinic.

North Carolina passed a law in 2017 making it one of the last states to raise the age of juvenile defendants to 17. But felony cases involving 13-to-17 year-old suspects may still get transferred to superior court upon the prosecutor's motion--and courts must grant a prosecutor's motion to transfer first-degree murder cases.

But Fedders said sentencing in a case like the one involving the alleged Raleigh shooter would be completely different than if it involved an adult.

"A person cannot be executed for a crime they committed under 18 and that's by United States Supreme Court case law," she said.

And there are court constraints on both sentences of life with and without parole. To sentence a juvenile to life without parole, the court would have to find the defendant is beyond redemption or incapable of rehabilitation.

And in a 4-3 majority ruling earlier this year, the North Carolina Supreme Court's four Democrats held that in life sentences with parole, juvenile's must become eligible for release after serving 40 years.

Fedders said, "But eligible for parole and getting parole are two very, very different things."

As Fedders explained, the court majority's rationale in that case, known as State v. Kelliher, had a lot do with the difference between juveniles and adults when it comes to brain development. That juveniles are more impulsive.

"They don't engage in any kind of meaningful cost-benefit determination before engaging in criminal activity," she explained.

And the Kelliher court said rehabilitated juveniles must have a legitimate chance at reintegrating into society.