The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Texas boxer was shot to death in his own home. The suspect: A 12-year-old boy.

Sammy Arellano, the girlfriend of slain boxer John Duane VanMeter, sits on the porch of her Uvalde, Tex., home Friday. Police said Thursday that a 12-year-old boy has been charged with capital murder in the shooting. (Billy Calzada/San Antonio Express-News/AP)

John Duane VanMeter was lying on the floor when police found him. He had been killed in his home Wednesday by a masked shooter, his girlfriend told police.

The suspect, Texas police later announced, is a child — a 12-year-old boy now charged with the most serious felony: capital murder.

The death of VanMeter, a 24-year-old professional boxer, left not only a family in mourning but also a void in the boxing community in Texas. That someone so young is suspected raises a troubling question: What could drive a 12-year-old boy to kill a man? That he was charged with the most serious felony on the books — a crime that would have been punishable by death if he were six years older — raises questions about a juvenile justice system that has often treated minors like adults.

“If a child has committed an adult crime, then almost by definition, you know that there are serious problems in that child’s life,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “A kid who commits murder isn’t thinking about the law. He or she is caught up in some very complicated set of emotions. … We’re dealing with somebody who has been seriously abused or neglected or is mentally ill.”

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The boy, whose name has not been released, is among the youngest defendants to be charged with capital murder in the country, Dunham said. He wouldn’t face the death penalty because the Supreme Court has found it unconstitutional to impose capital punishment on someone younger than 18. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 40 years of incarceration.

Someone so young being charged with capital murder is hardly a surprise in Texas because prosecutors often seek the highest possible charge they believe they can prove, said Steven Halpert, juvenile division chief of the public defender’s office in Harris County, which encompasses most of Houston.

“I don’t think they did it to be sensational or spectacular. I think they believe they have the elements there. They’re going to charge with the crime whether the person is 12 or 60,” said Halpert, a former prosecutor who is not involved in the boy’s case. He added: “They believe that the public demands that.”

Under Texas law, factors such as burglary, kidnapping, sexual assault and killing a police officer can elevate a murder charge to capital murder. In the boy’s case, burglary might have been that factor, experts say. The Uvalde Police Department said the killer dressed in all black, covered his face with a black bandanna and broke into VanMeter’s home in Uvalde, about an hour and a half west of San Antonio. Police did not offer a motive.

Prosecutors can seek a punishment of up to 40 years, even for someone who’s too young to be tried as an adult, said Halpert, who represents juveniles charged with the most serious crimes. In Texas, the cutoff age to charge a minor as an adult is 14.

A small memorial of candles and flowers sat outside VanMeter’s home, which he shared with his girlfriend, Sammy Arellano. The Washington Post was unable to reach her Saturday, but she told the San Antonio Express-News that the boy had been frequently staying at their house and sleeping on their couch over the past two months. She said the boy had threatened people before, including her son.

Arellano has filled her Facebook account with pictures and posts about VanMeter, whom she had planned to marry.

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  • 9:01 p.m. Thursday: “Always loved putting that smile on your face my love. That’s how I’m gonna remember you.” 
  • 3:43 a.m. Friday: “I swear I need you John . . . please let me know you’re with me.” 
  • 10:15 a.m. Saturday: “I miss you so much John I really can’t wait to be with you again”

VanMeter was born in Anaheim, Calif., and began boxing a few years ago in the super featherweight division. One of his last Facebook posts was an announcement about a match on Feb. 23 in Beaumont, Tex. “I have [too] much on the line and [too] many people to prove wrong !!! Let’s get this going !!!” he wrote.

He had two children, the Uvalde Leader-News reported, and was a member of the Tree City Boxing Club in Uvalde. The club closed its gym for the rest of the week and will reopen after VanMeter is buried.

“We are at a loss for words. It’s a sad sad night, not just for Tree City Boxing, but for our entire community. Please keep the VanMeters in your prayers,” the club wrote on Facebook.

El Tigre Promotions, which hosts boxing events in Houston and surrounding areas, said VanMeter had two recent victories under his belt.

“He was a boxer full of life, spirit and great personality who never failed to impress,” the company wrote on Facebook.

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The boy is now in a juvenile detention center. Little has been reported about his family life or what problems he may have been facing. The San Antonio Express-News reported that child protective services has investigated the boy’s family situation before, though no records about him are publicly available.

Depending on the length of the sentence, the boy will be in the juvenile system until he’s 19 if convicted. Then he will have to go back to court, and a judge will decide whether to transfer him to an adult prison or place him on parole for the remainder of his sentence, Halpert said.

Mandy Miller, a Houston-area defense attorney who represents juveniles convicted of capital murder and seeking to reduce their sentences, said Texas’s juvenile justice system still falls behind in its treatment of defendants who are too young to comprehend the gravity of their actions.

“The justice system has to catch up with science, which says that brains are not fully formed until we’re in our 20s. Male development of the brain is even behind the females,” said Miller, who is not involved in the case. “A 12-year-old, this is not somebody who can comprehend the gravity of his actions. That’s assuming he isn’t [already] damaged.”

Miller said the justice system remains focused more on placing young defendants behind bars and keeping them their for much of their adult life.

“Some of the young men I’ve dealt with on post-conviction were given automatic life sentences without the possibility of parole. … These are young men who I’ve seen a lot of growth since their offenses,” she said. “If we all think that our criminal justice system is for rehabilitation, these are the individuals we should be taking chances on.”

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