No adult court for accused teen killers, appeals court rules in upholding new state law

A state appeals court in Sacramento has ruled the controversial law barring 14- and 15-year-olds from facing murder charges in adult court is constitutional, sending two Sacramento murder cases including the high-profile slaying of a Grant Union High School student-athlete to juvenile court.

Appellate judges in their 14-page ruling Wednesday affirmed a Sacramento juvenile judge’s decision that Keymontae Lindsey be tried in juvenile court in the 2015 shooting death of Grant Union High School student-athlete Jaulon “J.J.” Clavo. Lindsey was 15 when he was arrested in Clavo’s slaying. Judges also overturned a ruling in a 2017 murder case involving a 15-year-old suspect that would have sent the teenage defendant to criminal court.

Both Sacramento cases ruled on Wednesday are now bound again for Sacramento juvenile court. If convicted, Lindsey and the teen suspected in the 2017 slaying could be set free when they turn 25. The cases had been in limbo for months as the Sacramento-based 3rd District Court of Appeal decided whether SB 1391 was constitutional or should be overturned. Judges in Sacramento and elsewhere had been mixed on an issue battled in courtrooms across the state.

Trial in Clavo’s killing could begin in less than three weeks unless the state’s high court issues a stay halting the proceedings. Clavo’s mother Nicole Clavo has been a vocal opponent of the new law, rallying crime victims on social media and meeting with district attorneys and lawmakers.

“We lost our case. They ruled SB 1391 Constitutional,” Clavo wrote in a Facebook post Wednesday. “I felt as if that would be the ruling but I would be lying if I didn’t say that my heart sunk and my eyes swelled with tears upon hearing the ruling.”

In comments to The Sacramento Bee on Wednesday, Clavo said though she anticipated the court’s ruling, “nevertheless, it shook my spirit. This case is not just about me but so many others who are going through this throughout the state.”

The decision to uphold Senate Bill 1391 is but the latest development in a pitched battle over the constitutionality of a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last October and a blow to county prosecutors who have contested the law ever since it went into effect in January.

The law was designed as an extension of the criminal justice reforms set out in 2016’s Proposition 57, with its charge to rehabilitate young offenders in the juvenile justice system and to have judges decide whether minors younger than 16 years old are tried as adults for serious crimes. Prior to Prop. 57, prosecutors could charge 14- and 15-year-olds as adults in cases of murder, arson, robbery, rape or kidnapping, subjecting them to longer sentences if convicted.

Crime victims and California prosecutors protested the new law. Crime victims said the law was passed without their voices. Prosecutors said the law deceived voters who approved Prop. 57, threatened public safety and unduly stripped judges’ ability to decide how young offenders should be tried.

On Wednesday, the appellate court disagreed: “Senate Bill 1391 does not conflict with Proposition 57, but advances its stated intent and purpose to reduce the number of youths to be tried in adult court, reduce the number of incarcerated persons in state prisons, and emphasize rehabilitation for juveniles.”

Sacramento’s courts were a particular hotbed with judges split on the law’s legality. Sacramento Juvenile Court Judge Alyson Lewis, upheld SB 1391 in two cases. Two Sacramento judges – Sacramento Juvenile Court Judge Judy Hersher and Superior Court Judge James Arguelles – sided with prosecutors in ruling SB 1391 unconstitutional.

Now, the battle almost assuredly moves to the state Supreme Court. The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office offered a brief statement reacting to the ruling.

“We have received the Court of Appeal’s decision and we are considering the option of further appellate relief,” Sacramento County Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Rod Norgaard said in a prepared statement.

But in March, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert criticized the law and its impact on crime victims while forecasting an eventual hearing before the state’s high court.

“We exercised the law and that law has been ripped from underneath them. If you want to have a policy debate, you have to be willing to hear the facts and listen to victims,” Schubert said in March. “It’s a hollow conversation if it’s not about real life. There are real life implications for people on both sides.”

Juvenile defense attorney Kevin Adamson represents Lindsey and Tanner Wood, the Rocklin teen whose murder sentence in the 2016 killing of his 13-year-old sister remains on hold as Sacramento appellate judges review that case. Wood agreed in 2018 to plead guilty to second-degree murder and receive a sentence of 16 years to life in state prison. As a condition of the deal, Wood would remain in custody until he turned 18, then be transferred to state prison to serve the remainder of his time.

Adamson said Wednesday’s ruling by the appeals court provides “finality” in cases marked by stays and delays.

“From my perspective, the appellate court got it right. Our legal position has always been that SB 1391 emphasizes rehabilitation in Juvenile Court which furthers the stated purpose of Prop. 57,” Adamson said via text message. “I represent two kids at the forefront of this issue and the trial judge for one minor ruled the law constitutional while the other judge ruled it unconstitutional. We now have some finality and will immediately move forward on both cases in juvenile court.”

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