juvenile justice

What Happens When a Kid Is Charged With a Felony Murder?

Police ask for assistance in locating suspects and witnesses in the killing of Tessa Majors in Morningside Park, on Dec. 16, 2019.
Police ask for assistance in locating suspects and witnesses in the killing of Tessa Majors in Morningside Park, on Dec. 16, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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A Manhattan Family Court judge gave the go-ahead Tuesday to a case both shocking and rare — finding probable cause that a 13-year-old boy committed felony murder by allegedly participating in a mugging that led to the death of Barnard College student Tessa Majors.

The child remains at a juvenile detention facility, in the custody of the Administration for Children’s Services.

He will go through the city’s juvenile justice system instead of adult court owing to his age and the charge: He stands accused of being involved in a crime related to a killing — but not of the killing itself.

No matter what the outcome of his case, he won’t face time in prison. Here’s how the juvenile justice system functions and how the case will likely proceed:

Courts for Kids

New York’s juvenile justice system has roots in Chicago in the late 1800s, noted Leona Lee, an assistant professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Cases of young people under 16 accused of crimes in New York are almost always handled outside of adult courts — with the exception of those charged with murder and some other serious violent felonies. Those youths are labeled “juvenile offenders” under a 1970s tough-on-crime law.

“These are very rare, but the newspapers often focus on the extraordinary stuff,” said Lee.

The juvenile offender charges handled in adult court include felony murder — but only for 14- and 15-year-olds.

The 13-year-old arrested in connection with the Dec. 11 fatal stabbing of Majors in Morningside Park was charged as a juvenile delinquent, according to the city’s Law Department, which is pressing his case.

In recent years, the number of juvenile arrests has dropped in Manhattan, and so has the number of kids classified as juvenile offenders — down to 48 last year, from 93 in 2014.

The Young Brain

Juvenile justice systems have recently begun to reckon with findings in neuroscience that show that young people’s decision-making capabilities are not fully developed, potentially making them less responsible for their actions than adults.

“They do not have the ability to think through everything they do, so they have diminished culpability as a result,” said Lauren Shapiro, a professor of psychology at John Jay. “You have to form intent to harm, because they don’t do that they don’t have the culpability.”

This reasoning, as well as cases that include the incarceration of the now-exonerated Central Park Five and the suicide of Kalief Browder following long stints in solitary confinement, has led to reforms of New York’s system.

The changes include “Raise the Age,” which folded 16- and 17-year-olds — previously automatically tried as adults — into the juvenile justice process.

Arrest and Charges

When any young person is taken to the police precinct for interrogation, he or she has certain rights.

“The NYPD adheres to strict guidelines when processing juvenile arrests,” Sgt. Mary O’Donnell, a Police Department spokesperson, said in a statement.

She pointed to Patrol Guide entries governing the rules of treatment of people under 18: “Miranda warnings for juveniles are read while the parent/guardian is present. If the parent/guardian objects to questioning or requests an attorney, no questioning will occur,” she said.

But according to the NYPD’s own patrol guide, a child can be questioned without a parent or guardian present if “every reasonable effort” has been made to notify them; if there is extreme necessity for questioning at the time; and/or the police have considered the “ability of the juvenile to understand Miranda warnings.”

A vigil for Tessa Majors near where she was found stabbed at a staircase in Morningside Park.
A vigil for Tessa Majors near where she was found stabbed at a staircase in Morningside Park. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The 13-year-old’s uncle, a guardian, was reportedly present during his interrogation, but there was no lawyer. The teen’s Legal Aid attorney claimed in court that the boy was yelled at and asked leading questions by detectives.

According to Shapiro, sometimes a parent does not understand the right to ask for a lawyer.

“They may also allow questioning without an attorney present” believing that simply answering questions in the moment might result in a lesser charge, Shapiro said.

A 14-year-old suspect in the same case was later arrested, questioned with a lawyer present, and released, officials said.

Minors are required to be held separately from adults and to be questioned in an “appropriate area designated for interrogation of juveniles,” according to the NYPD Patrol Guide. But Shapiro noted that the questioning itself isn’t required to be different.

And if you want a lawyer, you have to “ask very clearly,” said Lee.

“I would advise a parent to always tell their child if you’re questioned by the police … to tell them your name and provide your identification,” said Shapiro. “If they start asking you questions, you do not have to speak to them. You may say, ‘Am I being arrested?’ If the answer is no, then walk away and call [a parent] right away. If the answer is yes, you say: ‘Okay, I would like a lawyer.’”

Court and Beyond

The 13-year-old charged in the Majors case faces two upcoming court dates, scheduled for Monday and Jan. 2, according to the Law Department.

Family Court hearings will serve as the equivalent of a trial. If found guilty by the Family Court judge, the youth could face time in a juvenile facility, but not more than five years.

“He might not be able to stay with his uncle, but he’s not going to prison,” said Lee. “Sentencing would be focused on rehabilitation or treatment. Close to home, close to the community.”

Police are still looking for a teenager they believe committed the slaying. If found and charged with murder, the child would be arraigned as an adult in Manhattan Supreme Court.

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