COA upholds trial court’s denial of motion to waive juvenile murder delinquent to adult court

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The Indiana Court of Appeals declined to reverse a trial court’s decision not to waive a juvenile murder case to adult court after it concluded there was sufficient evidence to support the decision.

At the age of 12, J.T. committed an act that would be considered murder if committed by an adult when she repeatedly stabbed her stepmother in the face and chest with a knife, causing her death. Prior to the attack, J.T. displayed symptoms of severe mental illness, including hearing voices that told her to hurt people.

J.T., who was eventually diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, was initially incarcerated in the Elkhart County Juvenile Detention Center. But a report from J.T.’s guardian ad litem detailing the girl’s mental illness symptoms led to her alternative placement in LaRue Carter Hospital, a facility operated by the Family and Social Services Administration’s Division of Mental Health and Addiction, for mental health treatment.

J.T. began to show signs of improvement in the hospital, and a subsequent competency assessment determined she was competent to stand trial. Thus, the state moved to waive J.T. into adult court.

But the Elkhart Circuit Court denied the state's motion. In its ruling, the court said J.T. “demonstrated that it would be in the best interest of the child and the safety and welfare of the community for [her] to remain within the juvenile justice system.”

Both parties appealed – with the state challenging the denial of its motion and J.T. urging the Court of Appeals to dismiss the appeal – and J.T. was placed in a secure residential facility in Ohio. The appellate panel ultimately denied J.T.’s request to dismiss State of Indiana v. J.T., 18A-JV-1491, but also affirmed the original judgment of the juvenile court. 

On cross-appeal, J.T. argued the state lacked authority to seek interlocutory review of the juvenile court’s denial of its motion to waive jurisdiction. Specifically, J.T. argued that the interlocutory appeal would conflict with the 10-day statutory deadline under Indiana Code section 31-37-11-3 (1997); that the state failed to show the case met any of the criteria set forth in I.C. 35-38-4-2(6), and; that she was injured by the state’s interlocutory appeal because several residential mental health providers declined to accept her for treatment while her case is pending.

But the appellate panel determined there were sufficient grounds for an interlocutory appeal and, thus, denied the motion to dismiss.

The COA also rejected the state’s contentions that the juvenile court should have waived jurisdiction over J.T. and that its decision lacked sufficient evidentiary support.

Conceding that the crime was very severe and was, to some degree, premeditated, the COA nevertheless found that J.T. displayed symptoms of severe mental illness and suffered a traumatic childhood fraught with underlying severe physical abuse, emotional neglect and abuse, severe sexual abuse and physical neglect, as revealed in testimony by numerous medical professionals on her behalf.

Specifically, the appellate court noted that despite her slight improvement while hospitalized, J.T. continued to experience symptoms of “psychosis, disassociation, posttraumatic stress, and depression” that caused concern among medical professionals. Further, during her time in the juvenile detention center, J.T.  had a resurgence of mental illness symptoms that seemed to worsen, including hearing voices and inflicting self-harm.

The COA further noted that one medical professional found that residential treatment, as opposed to placement at a Department of Correction facility, would be best suited to offer J.T. “more intensive treatment” at a younger age so that she might benefit from it.

Thus, the court declined to reweigh evidence based on the state’s assertion that sufficient juvenile mental health services were available to J.T. in the adult correctional facility and that she could be placed in a secure residential facility rather than a correctional setting even if waived to criminal court and convicted of murder as an adult.

“Neither the juvenile court nor this Court can predict the future,” Senior Judge John Sharpnack wrote for the unanimous panel. “It is possible that DID-focused treatment in a residential setting, under the juvenile court’s supervision, will not adequately address J.T.’s mental illness. 

“It is also possible that after J.T. becomes an adult, the symptoms of her mental illness will resurge, or she will fail to obtain adequate treatment,” Sharpnack continued. “For today, we can only conclude that the juvenile court’s decision is not against the logic and effects of the facts and circumstances, and as a result the court did not abuse its discretion in denying the State’s motion to waive jurisdiction.”

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