UPDATE: This article has been edited to clarify a statement from the UNLV professor.
LAS VEGAS (KLAS) – With the majority of the young men he believes beat and kicked a Rancho High School student to death already behind bars, Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson has some decisions to make.
“In a case like this, there may be varying degrees of culpability,” Wolfson, told the 8 News Now Investigators. “If you’re one individual that causes six, or eight or 10 blows to the victim, versus another individual which may have thrown one punch, that may have an effect on what we determine to do as far as charging and outcome.
Metro arrested and booked all eight young men for murder, including a 15-year-old boy and his younger brother, 13. The 13-year-old would, by all accounts, be the youngest murder defendant in Nevada state history.
“We’re not talking about a six-year-old,” Wolfson said Wednesday. “We’re not talking about an eight-year-old.”
A juvenile court judge will hold a hearing in December to determine whether the four younger teens should be tried in adult court. That process, in Nevada, is called certification. If the 13-year-old is certified, it will no doubt raise eyebrows across the state.
“I don’t disagree that it’s not an easy thing to understand how a 13-year-old could commit murder,” Wolfson said.
Medical research and academia support that notion, and further indicate that adolescents’ brains take far longer to develop than originally thought.
“There is now incontrovertible evidence that adolescence is a period of significant changes in brain structure and function,” one scholarly article by Temple University professor Laurence Steinberg declares.
The article continues: “Reasonable people may disagree about what these findings may mean as society decides how to treat young people, but there is little room for disagreement about the fact that adolescence is a period of substantial brain maturation with respect to both structure and function.”
Indeed, a professor of law and juvenile justice at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law says adult prison might make things worse for a juvenile who could one day return to society.
“The purpose of why we have a separate juvenile justice system is we’ve known for 130 years or so the last thing you want to do is take a kid who’s done something dumb but they’re not a hardened criminal and put them into an environment where they’re going to learn how to become a hardened criminal and a lifelong offender,” the professor, David Tanenhaus, said. “Most kids grow out of delinquency.”
“Kids who commit the most serious crimes – they will eventually be released into society,” Tanenhaus said. “So you don’t want to take somebody and make them into somebody so much worse than the person they could have been.”
The juvenile court hearing in Clark County Family Court is scheduled for Dec. 6. The family of the victim, Jonathan Lewis, 17, will hold a vigil on November 21. The four older teens will also appear in Las Vegas Justice Court that day.