District Attorney Lorrin Freeman is moving forward with charging the 14-year-old suspect in the fatal stabbing at Southeast Raleigh High School with murder, a step that could lead to him being tried as an adult in Wake County Superior Court.
But in an interview Tuesday, Freeman said she will have to thoroughly review the evidence and talk to the families of the students injured and killed before she makes a final decision on whether to try the teen for first-degree murder, for which, if convicted, he could face life in prison.
Freeman could also decide later in the case to send it back to juvenile court, where he could face a lesser charge such as manslaughter.
Law enforcement officials took out a juvenile petition for murder for the 14-year-old charged with stabbing two students during a fight at the school Monday morning. A 15-year-old died, and a 16-year-old remains hospitalized.
At this point, the case is following a process in state law that requires a probable cause hearing for youth 13 to 15 years old charged with a Class A felony like murder in juvenile court, Freeman said. If the juvenile court judge finds probable cause, or sufficient evidence the teen may have committed the killing, the case will automatically be transferred to Wake County Superior Court, where he would be tried as an adult — unless Freeman sends it back.
What could happen to the 14-year-old next?
The probable cause hearing will be held in juvenile court in the coming weeks or months, Freeman said. Details of juvenile court hearings are not made public.
“This is still very much in the investigative stage,” Freeman said.
If the killing had happened at the end of this week, a change in state law taking effect Dec. 1 would streamline the 14-year-old’s path to Superior Court through a grand jury indictment, bypassing the juvenile court hearing and any related delays or questions about whether he is competent to move forward.
Under the current process, it took a year to transfer the case of the 15-year-old boy charged with killing five people in Raleigh’s Hedingham neighborhood in October 2022 from juvenile to Superior Court.
That case was unique, Feeeman said, due to a number of factors, and she doesn’t expect this case to take as long to get to Superior Court.
If the teen is convicted of first-degree murder in Superior Court, he wouldn’t face the death penalty because the U.S. Supreme Court has banned it for youth under 18.
Also, a life sentence upon a first-degree murder conviction isn’t automatic for those younger than 18. U.S. Supreme court rulings over the past two decades have recognized the brains of children under 18 are still developing and life sentences should be rare.
Ultimately, a judge would decide whether a youth convicted of murder under the age of 18 should spend life in prison after a jury finds the teen guilty of first-degree murder.
Change coming in North Carolina law
If the killing had occurred five days later, it would be subject to a change in state law that takes effect Friday.
The change, signed by Gov. Roy Cooper in August, lets prosecutors bypass juvenile court and go straight to Superior Court with a grand jury indictment on a Class A felony, such as murder.
The change may sound procedural. But juvenile advocates, including state. House Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat and former judge, argue that youth are better served starting out in the juvenile system, which focuses more on rehabilitative services and keeps court proceedings and related information confidential.
Freeman and other prosecutors supported the change, saying they wanted to make sure youth charged with serious crimes are transferred.
In a previous interview, Freeman described those cases as “the most violent felonies,” and said they should be heard by Superior Court judges and not protected by the juvenile court’s “cloak of confidentiality.”
Freeman expressed concern Tuesday about an increase in the number of juveniles charged with violent offenses.
“That is a growing concern,” she said. “Trying to find solutions has got to be a priority.”
It’s hard to identify one driving force, she said, but pointed to a proliferation of weapons, greater access to those weapons and people bringing them to fights instead of defusing volatile situations.
What role could the video play?
Video of Monday’s incident has been circulating on social media and has been shared by news organizations.
Freeman couldn’t comment on the specifics to this case, but she said in general video evidence, be it from a cell phone or an officer’s body-worn camera, is playing a critical role in helping cases move forward more and more.
Four years after Raise the Age
Changes in the law like the one coming Friday nibble away at the monumental change that state lawmakers agreed to in 2017, known as Raise the Age, Morey said.
Raise the Age went into effect on Dec. 1, 2019, making North Carolina one of the last states to stop automatically sending youth under the age of 18 to Superior Court, where they are tried as adults.
Sixteen and 17-year-olds indicted by a grand jury on Class A through G felonies were still automatically transferred to Superior Court, but most others would start out in the juvenile system.
Morey said cases like the 14-year-old charged with murder don’t represent the bulk of charges that youth are facing. Most face lesser charges and are the ones caught up in “draconian laws” that send youths to adult court, she said.
Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in the Triangle and across North Carolina for The News & Observer. Her work is produced with financial support from the nonprofit The Just Trust. The N&O maintains full editorial control of its journalism.