Adult charges likely for juvenile suspect wanted in NC teens’ murder, officials say

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Area law enforcement agencies continued to search Wednesday for a teenage suspect in the killing of two local high school students whose bodies were found Sunday afternoon in western Orange County.

As of early afternoon, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office had no update since letting the public know Tuesday that a juvenile petition was being issued for the 17-year-old suspect’s arrest on two counts of murder. The suspect’s name was not released because of their age.

The teenage victims — 14-year-old Lyric Woods and 18-year-old Devin Clark — were found dead with gunshot wounds on an ATV trail in the woods off Buckhorn Road outside of Hillsborough around 3 p.m. Sunday.

Woods and Clark were friends, according to friends’ and family members’ posts on social media. She was a freshman at Cedar Ridge High School in Hillsborough; he was a junior at Eastern Alamance High School in Mebane.

GoFundMe campaigns have been set up for both teens’ families, and flowers filled a roadside memorial this week near the corner of Buckhorn and Yarbrough roads, where the teens were killed.

Woods’ grandfather Stan Dean was at the memorial Tuesday, where he had erected a cross with lights wrapped around it “because she was afraid of the dark,” he explained.

He spoke with The News & Observer about his last memories of his granddaughter. He has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

Woods “trusted everyone” and assumed the best in other people, Dean said. “The minutes are too long … We’re just taking it breath by breath.”

The Sheriff’s Office is continuing to investigate and is waiting for the State Medical Examiner’s Office to officially confirm their identities and cause of death. The Sheriff’s Office declined to say Wednesday whether they are seeking additional suspects or even to confirm that the known suspect is male, as one media outlet reported.

How the case will proceed

In North Carolina, first-degree murder is a Class A felony. However, 16- and 17-year-olds who commit murder are no longer charged automatically as adults because of the Raise the Age bill passed in 2019. Instead, all cases involving suspects ages 10 to 17 are first heard in juvenile court, where a decision can be made to try them in juvenile court or try them through the adult criminal process.

The process in juvenile court differs from county to county, said Eric Zogry, with the N.C. Office of the Juvenile Defender. The typical process starts with filing a complaint with the juvenile justice office, which can ask the court for a petition, or warrant, to have the suspect detained or brought to court.

Law enforcement can seek a secure custody order at the same time allowing them to jail a young suspect before the initial hearing in juvenile court, where a judge determines if there’s enough probable cause, or evidence, to charge the person as an adult.

“What’s different about (juvenile court) is how you get in, how you get out, the terminology, the parties and the purpose,” Zogry said.

“It kind of looks and acts like criminal court — you get charged, you can get your liberties taken away, the Constitution applies — we have this whole different language we use to describe it, but it’s very very similar to adult criminal court,” he said, “and when Raise the Age was passed, I think the idea was kids get a chance in juvenile court, but, generally, in those cases that are the more serious with the older kids, there are these pathways to adult criminal court.”

One of those pathways is being transferred after a probable cause hearing in juvenile court. The other is a grand jury indictment.

The change in how violent cases involving juvenile suspects are handled has dramatically increased the number of very serious cases being heard in juvenile court, Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said in a phone interview Wednesday

His office has not decided whether to try the suspect in the Buckhorn Road killings as an adult, Woodall said, but the next meeting of the county’s grand jury is in early October.

If the case is moved to an adult court, the name of the juvenile suspect and other details about the crime could be made public.

“One of the reasons we have a juvenile court system is to not permanently identify these youths as persons who get into trouble or lawbreakers or whatever … the job of the people (in juvenile justice) is to make sure to the best of their ability that these youths are successful,” Zogry said.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated as more information becomes available.