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ROCKVILLE – A fourth teenager charged in an alleged Damascus High School rape in October will be tried in juvenile court after a county circuit court judge approved his request to transfer out of the adult criminal system.
Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Steven Salant ruled March 21 that the fourth and final suspect who had been charged as an adult in the incident will move to the juvenile court system after petitioning for the transfer. Salant approved the petitions of the three other suspects at their own hearings, which were held during the past few weeks.
The alleged victims were freshmen members of the junior varsity football team; the alleged attack occurred in a freshmen locker room. Four suspects, all freshmen and sophomores on the junior varsity team, are accused of sodomizing teammates with a wooden broomstick after school Oct. 31. Those defendants faced charges of first-degree rape, charges of attempting to commit rape and charges of conspiracy to commit rape.
During the hearing, which started March 19, the co-prosecutors and the defense produced dozens of documents to enter into evidence in the case. The hearing lasted from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., with a 30-minute break. The judge said more time was needed to consider both sides of the case before deciding, pushing back his decision to March 21.
Seated in the courtroom for the hearing were family members of the victims and family of the suspect, family friends and members of the news media.
If the severity of the crime were the only factor, “I would deny this petition (to transfer jurisdiction) in a minute, but that’s not – that’s not my obligation,” Salant said in court.
The state requires Salant to base his decision on the “preponderance of the evidence” by considering five factors, including safety of the public or the accused, the suspect’s amenability to treatment, the nature of the alleged crime, the suspect’s age and the suspect’s mental and physical condition.
Both the state and the defense disagreed on how amenable the suspect is to treatment. The two prosecutors said that Montgomery County Public Schools tried everything to help his behavior but that nothing worked.
Co-prosecutor Carlotta Woodward gave more than a dozen documents on the suspect’s behavior, dating back to sixth grade, detailing a history of numerous negative actions. The documents included referrals, many entries by teachers about inappropriate behavior and suspension letters home to his mother. He had been suspended from school 10 times, with the reasons for suspension growing worse over time. Therefore, he is not amenable to treatment, the judge determined.
Defense Attorney Daniel Wright argued that although the teen had a “terrible” record, his grades and behavior had improved – he went from D’s and E’s to A’s and B’s – once his pediatrician prescribed a drug that can be used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
While he has not been officially diagnosed with the disorder, Randi Wortman, a psychologist called by the defense, said that after meeting with the defendant and his mother and conducting several evaluations, concluded that he may have a severe case.
Wortman said that in “(her) professional opinion,” every intervention by the school failed probably because he was not medicated yet. Both Wortman and the suspect’s mother said the suspect’s pediatrician had recommended medication three years prior to the alleged incident, but the mother said she did not want her son taking it because she feared that he would become addicted to the drug.
The suspect has not been reported for misbehavior since taking medication. Wright said medication improved his client’s grades and behavior and he has not misbehaved at the alternative school he now attends, the Blair Ewing Center, which is part of MCPS.
Despite widespread documentation by the state, the judge ended up siding with the defense.
“Public safety is a concern of mine as it is for all of you,” Salant told the attorneys and people in attendance. “But I also (believe) based on the findings, more likely than not that a transfer of jurisdiction is in the best for the child (suspect).”
Salant said part of reason for transfer approval is the defendant’s age of 15, and how he has responded to his treatment. Since the suspect could receive behavior treatment in the juvenile justice system, it was the best place for the teen, the judge said.
The judge took into account Wortman’s testimony as well as numerous letters from school officials supplied by prosecutors spoke about the suspect’s impulse control problems. Salant noted that according to the psychologist, the suspect could not sit still for more than a few minutes at a time and could not have planned the attack ahead of time during her February evaluation. A violent incident that had been planned would have harsher penalties.
“This is not a person who plans things out, and there is a problem with self-regulation of his behaviors,” Salant said March 21.
Salant ordered that the suspect’s criminal case file be sealed, which is customary when a case moves from criminal court to juvenile court.
In his prior three motion-to-transfer-jurisdictions decisions, the judge agreed with the overall recommendations from the Department of Juvenile Services. However, Salant said he disagreed with the department’s recommendation for this defendant, stating it did not know whether the defendant was amenable to treatment.
Tom DeGonia, an attorney representing two victims and their families, did not say he was surprised by the ruling but did say he believes that Salant used different reasoning for his decision, compared to other three cases.
“The court used a rationale,” DeGonia said at a press conference after the hearing.
“That rationale is inconsistent with the previous decisions in the other cases,” he said. “I think there are factual distinctions (…), especially given the history that was present, for this defendant-now-respondent.”
DeGonia was accompanied by the two attorneys representing the other victims and their families, Jerry Hyatt and Edward Cardona. DeGonia said Cardona and Hyatt agreed with what DeGonia said. When asked if they agreed with DeGonia, they nodded their heads in unison.
“It’s important to the families and the victims,” DeGonia said “This was a horrible heinous crime that was committed against these young men in their school locker room.”
DeGonia and Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy both said that they did not believe the defendant’s possible ADHD diagnosis led to the horrific incident. McCarthy said he believed Salant spent too little time discussing public safety before declaring his decision, compared to other factors such as the mental and physical condition of the defendant.
However, Wright said that although Salant mentioned this disorder in his decision, ADHD is not the reason the judge approved his motion to transfer, but instead considered it as part of the suspect’s mental condition. He also said juvenile court is not a “pass.”
“The Department of Juvenile Services does have the resources that can treat a child. That’s why they’re there,” Wright said.