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Teen accused of killing sister could be tried as adult
Adult conviction could mean years in prison for 14-year-old
January 24, 2014|By Lisa Black and Duaa Eldeib, Tribune reporters
Had she been one year older, a 14-year-old Mundelein girl accused of fatally stabbing her 11-year-old sister would automatically have faced murder charges as an adult under Illinois law.
But because the suspect is younger than 15, Lake County’s top prosecutor has discretion in recommending whether she be tried in the juvenile or adult criminal justice systems. The path chosen could lead to very different destinations: If convicted in adult court, the girl could get 20 to 60 years in prison. A guilty verdict in juvenile court would likely mean juvenile detention for seven years, or until she turns 21.
“This will be a tough decision,” said State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim, who could spend several weeks reviewing the case before making a recommendation. Among the factors he’ll consider are the girl’s age, criminal and mental health history, public safety and the circumstances of the alleged murder, including possible premeditation.
“I want to make sure I have all of the necessary information required to make an informed decision,” he said.
The 14-year-old remains at a Vernon Hills juvenile detention facility, with arraignment scheduled for Friday.
She’ll remain locked up while loved ones pay final respects to her sister, Dora Betancourt, whose funeral will be in Libertyville on Wednesday.
Dora’s severely wounded body was found in her bedroom Tuesday morning after police said they responded to a 911 call placed by the 14-year-old.
Authorities have said the teen told police that she had fetched a kitchen knife and stabbed her sister multiple times that morning because she was angry over a fight they had had the prior evening.
The teen, who initially blamed the attack on an intruder, complained that Dora was not grateful for her older sister’s efforts around the house.
The children lived with their mother, who had left for work.
A juvenile judge will have the final call on whether the girl is tried as an adult, if Nerheim makes that recommendation, experts said.
“The ultimate question is what is in the best interests of the public,” said Alison Flaum, legal director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University’s law school.
In the juvenile court system, proceedings and records are more restricted from public view than in adult cases. The teen, if convicted, would be released at or before age 21. Her criminal record would be available to police, and she would likely be placed on a state violent offender’s list that would alert the public to her history, said Flaum, who is opposed to juveniles being tried as adults.
“It’s a false notion that we have to choose juvenile court where everything is hidden away from public view forever or — if we are concerned about public safety — that we have to go the criminal adult route,” she said.
If the teen were convicted in adult court, she would remain in juvenile detention until at least age 17, then be moved into the regular prison system, authorities said.
“The one-year difference in this girl’s age has enormous implications for how she can or will be processed,” said David Olson, a criminal justice professor at Loyola University Chicago . He added that the “going rate” for an adult murder sentence is about 40 years.
“It’s substantial,” he said. “Depending on how you view the prospects of rehabilitation or prison, one sentence will allow her a fair amount of life being free .”
If convicted of murder as an adult, the girl would be considered a long-term inmate in an adult system whose primary purpose is to house prisoners until they serve out their sentences, said Chris Bernard, program coordinator at the Cook County Justice Advisory Council.
That stands in stark contrast to the juvenile system, where the mission is rehabilitation, he said.
“They know, inevitably, any young person they have in their custody is going back out into the community ,” Bernard said. “The ultimate goal is creating a person who’s ready to go back into society.”
Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, a national advocate for victims, said she believes that each case should be judged individually. She does not agree with hard-and-fast objections to meting out adult justice against some teenage offenders.
Impulsiveness and peer pressure are common defenses for young defendants, she said.
“Unfortunately, sometimes — rarely, thank God — there are people under the age 18 who are already so dangerous and so broken that they have to be kept away from us,” said Bishop-Jenkins, president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers.
“You would want to use really good risk assessment tools.”
Family friends, who described Dora and her older sister as close and loving toward one another, are still stunned by the allegations.
“Those two were inseparable,” said Christine Coleman, one of Dora’s cheerleading coaches. “They looked out for each other.”
At practice, Dora was always smiling, Coleman said.
“She was the light in everybody’s eyes,” she said. “She was that shining star.”
Tribune reporter Dan Hinkel contributed.
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