Challenge to DA over juvenile’s transfer to adult court could break ground

This news analysis piece was published on the Opinion page of The Advocate on March 21. View the page here.  Or, on the website here.

District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he plans to fight a motion challenging his decision to transfer a juvenile defendant to adult court — an issue that might make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case involves Tyler Coleman, the 16-year-old boy accused of shooting and, officials say, paralyzing Metro Councilman Chandler Loupe’s son.

Moore, like all Louisiana district attorneys, has been largely unchallenged when he has decided to move any 14-, 15- or 16-year-old charged with a serious violent crime to adult court, with no need for a hearing on the issue first.

Moore said that while many defense attorneys fight transfers on the grounds of insanity or incompetence, Coleman’s attorney, Bruce Craft, is claiming his client has a right, under Louisiana’s Children’s Code, to a hearing on the transfer. The hearing would, in essence, shift authority over the decision from the district attorney to the Juvenile Court judge.

Moore said his office will file a motion with the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal contesting Juvenile Court Judge Pam Johnson’s Feb. 17 decision granting Coleman a transfer hearing. The final ruling will determine whether Coleman, who is charged with attempted first-degree murder and three counts of armed robbery, will face a maximum five years in Juvenile Detention Center or 99 years in an adult prison.

Craft, the defense attorney, said the Children’s Code specifies certain factors to be considered in a transfer hearing, such as the defendant’s ability to be rehabilitated by the juvenile justice system as well as the defendant’s criminal, educational, mental, social and medical history.

Moore said his office already takes those issues into account when deciding whether to charge a juvenile in adult court. He said each case presents a tough decision on whether the public is best protected with the offender facing juvenile or adult consequences. The decision is reached, he said, after examining the juvenile’s individual background, the seriousness of the crime, how it was committed, the victim’s input and the strength of the case.

“It’s difficult on us when you look at a kid who’s 15, maybe 4 foot 11, maybe 120 pounds and you’re charging him with 100 years in prison,” Moore said.

He argues that all juveniles charged with attempted murder or armed robbery in Louisiana can automatically be tried as adults at the district attorney’s discretion.

But other experts say the issue is not so clear cut. When the defendant is older than 14 but charged with a lesser crime than aggravated rape or murder, the defendant falls into a gray area, said Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Louisiana Juvenile Justice Project.

Judge Johnson said in an interview that while certain defendants — mainly those accused of violent crimes less serious than rape and murder — are guaranteed the right to a transfer hearing, the defense attorney must request one before adult charges are filed, a step that is not usually taken.

The case may soon end up before the state Supreme Court because whichever side loses in the 1st Circuit will probably appeal the ruling. If the case makes it to the state or U.S. Supreme Court and the defense wins, the ruling could have ramifications for juvenile defendants statewide and possibly beyond.

Naomi Martin covers crime for The Advocate. She can be reached at nmartin@theadvocate.com.

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