Murder Charges 'Send a Message'
Juveniles Liable, Charles Sheriff Says
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 17, 2004; Page B01
By his mother's account, Ray Spencer is a good child who loves to play basketball and is always looking out for his four sisters in their apartment in Northeast Washington.
He is her youngest son, a 14-year-old who recently finished the school year at the Jackie Robinson Center and will be going into ninth grade. He also is charged, along with his 16-year-old brother Tavon, with first-degree murder -- as an adult.
The Spencer brothers, along with four other teenagers from the Washington area, allegedly were involved in an attempted burglary Tuesday at a home in Charles County. Leaving the scene, a van carrying two of the youths crashed into an oncoming car near La Plata, killing a 50-year-old woman and one of the suspects. The Spencers were riding in another stolen vehicle that police pursued into Southeast Washington, authorities said.
"I don't feel they can charge them for murder," said Tawala Spencer, 35, a stay-at-home mother. "They weren't driving, and they weren't in the [van]. And they can't charge them as adults."
Law enforcement officials say a first-degree murder charge is standard procedure for juveniles in Maryland cases where all participants are 14 or older. The Charles County Sheriff's Office said the teenagers were charged under the felony murder rule, which says that if somebody is killed during the course of certain crimes, such as burglary, the suspects can be charged with first-degree murder.
Even though the Spencers were not physically involved in the fatal accident, their involvement in the alleged burglary attempt helped set the crime in motion, officials said. The brothers face life sentences in prison if convicted.
"They're still participants in the crime," said Charles County Sheriff Frederick E. Davis. "I think it should send a message about those who are committing felonies. If somebody gets killed in the process, whether it's done by a juvenile or an adult, they can be charged with murder."
Some juvenile advocates said that the charge is too stiff and that teenagers could be endangered if held in adult prisons.
"We don't want kids charged as adults, period," said Cameron Miles, community outreach director for the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition. "I don't think that young people can maintain their safety in a predatory adult environment, and that's exactly what would happen."
A first-degree murder charge for a juvenile is rare but not unprecedented in Charles County, officials said. In 1988, David Grzywacz, 15, shot and killed his mother and his half brother. He was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and eventually pled guilty to second-degree murder.
Even younger criminals have been convicted as adults in other parts of the country. Nathaniel Abraham, an 11-year-old Michigan boy who shot and killed an 18-year-old who was coming out of a convenience store, was found guilty of second-degree murder in 1999. He was among the youngest defendants to be tried for first-degree murder as an adult in the United States.
"This is unusual, but we're seeing more and more young, violent cases," said Douglas Mohler, the Charles County supervisor for the state Department of Juvenile Services. "Somehow we have to get to these kids to prevent it before it goes on."
Despite the charge, attorneys for the teenagers likely will request a trial in a juvenile court. If so, the Department of Juvenile Services would prepare a report taking into account five criteria: age; physical and mental health or condition; amenability to treatment in juvenile facilities; the nature of the offense and the individual's participation; and any potential threat to the community.
Mohler said his office would look at school and criminal records, interview relatives and perform psychological evaluations for the report. A judge ultimately would decide where the case would be heard.
"I can't imagine a case like this going forward without that issue being addressed up front," said Charles County Circuit Court Judge Robert C. Nalley.
Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company