A La Plata High School student arrested earlier this year after he was allegedly found in possession of marijuana-laced brownies and a loaded semiautomatic handgun at school had his case transferred to the county’s juvenile court system Wednesday afternoon.
The Maryland Independent does not publish the names of suspects in juvenile proceedings.
The proceedings first began last week in front of Charles County Circuit Court Judge Amy J. Bragunier. The student’s attorney, public defender Michal Gross, did not get into specifics during the first round of proceedings but told the judge there was more going on in the case than meets the eye.
“There’s been a lot going on in his life that I don’t think anyone understood,” Gross said in May.
During the June 5 proceedings, the meaning of Gross’ words became clear. Since arriving at the Cheltenham Youth Detention Center in Prince George’s County, the student has been diagnosed with mental health conditions that were previously unknown. An expert witness for the defense, Baltimore-based child psychiatrist Dr. Ronald Means, told the court he’d worked with the boy to hear “his life story from birth to the current time” to better understand the teen’s social history.
Another specialist who has seen the student, Office of the Public Defender social worker Angela Chou, told the court the boy’s records indicate strong progress. In response to questioning by Gross, Chou said she has been “very impressed” with the progress he has made at Cheltenham, saying his reports all show that he is engaged in his treatment and is responding well to medication to manage the symptoms of his illness. All that leads to an “excellent” prognosis for his future, Chou said.
Assistant State’s Attorney Tiffany Campbell questioned the validity of the experts’ findings when questioning Chou.
“He’s just telling you things and you’re taking him at his word?” Campbell posed. Chou replied that she does take the juvenile’s word under advisement, but noted his records from the other professionals treating him validate her own assessment. If the teen’s words contradicted the words of those caring for him, Chou said, that would not be the case.
The combination of his age and his mental health would make him even more vulnerable in an adult detention center, Gross said, and would also hinder his treatment as the state’s Department of Juvenile Services has treatment options not available in adult facilities. “He now has hope for the future,” Gross said. “He didn’t have the words to ask for help before.”
He allegedly committed an adult crime, Campbell said, and “is a big guy, and doesn’t look like most 16-year-olds I’ve seen.” Mental health treatment options exist in the adult system, she added. The fact that the gun — which the boy had allegedly been bringing to school since December before he was caught, she said — was cocked and loaded with a round in the chamber “screams public safety risk and danger.
“Looking at all the factors, this case should be in adult court,” Campbell said.
In making her decision, Bragunier said she was struck by the knowledge that had this incident occurred a month earlier, when the boy was 15, he would not have been charged as an adult in the first place. Her decision to remand the case to the juvenile court system, Bragunier said, would “keep him in a controlled setting” where he could continue to receive the services that have already been such a boon for him.
“We’ll have a much different person coming out of that than in the adult system, where the resources are much more limited,” Bragunier said.
Bragunier also moved the case of another 16-year-old to juvenile court on May 31 who was charged with attempted first- and second-degree murder, armed robbery and other crimes in connection to a March shooting in Waldorf. The juvenile was not the alleged gunman in the incident.