Killing of 8-Year-Old Spurs Changes to Georgia Law
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And now to a court case in Carrollton, Georgia, that has raised questions about how to punish juveniles who commit murder. A 13-year-old boy accused of killing an eight-year-old girl has made a plea deal. That means he'll only spend a couple of years in custody. State legislators are now scrambling to revise the state's juvenile justice laws. From Georgia Public Broadcasting, Susanna Capelouto reports.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
Mr. TOM YATES (Father): This is what we call our Amy room.
SUSANNA CAPELOUTO reporting:
Tom Yates keeps memories of his daughter in a small room of his mobile home.
Mr. YATES: And this is the last puzzle she had put together before she died.
CAPELOUTO: It's a puzzle of Scooby-Doo, Amy's favorite cartoon character. There are pictures of Amy everywhere. In April of last year, the eight-year-old was riding her bike through the mobile home park where the family lived at the time. She was on her way to a friend's house, but never arrived. Her body was found later that night in a ditch. Within 24 hours, authorities arrested a 12-year-old neighbor. Tom Yates.
Mr. YATES: He was the last person to see my daughter alive, and that was it. And the type of death that she died from has got to be one of the most violent. She was strangled to death by hand.
CAPELOUTO: Yates' sorrow and grief quickly turned to anger when he learned that under Georgia's current juvenile code, the boy can only get a sentence of two years in juvenile detention.
Mr. YATES: I consider two years absolutely nothing. I was so angry at the time when I found out. I said, `You should just let him go now.'
CAPELOUTO: The case has exposed huge loopholes in Georgia's juvenile law. It turns out that bringing a knife to school, for example, can result in five years of detention, three more than murder. During the height of the crack epidemic, Georgia lawmakers wanted to get tough on crime, so in 1994, they decided that 13-year-olds who commit heinous crimes like murder and aggravated assault should be tried as adults and given a 10-year mandatory sentence. In doing so, says state Senator Bill Hamrick, those crimes were transferred from the juvenile to the adult system.
State Senator BILL HAMRICK (Republican, Georgia): The law that had been dealing with those crimes for juveniles was not revised, and it created a gap there for someone who's under 13 to commit murder and not be appropriately dealt with in the system.
CAPELOUTO: Hamrick is a Republican who represents the area where Amy Yates lived. He says when it comes to violent crimes, he'd prefer no age limit.
Sen. HAMRICK: I'm beginning to think we want to look more at the crime as opposed to the age. So if you have a 10-year-old who commits murder, we need to have something that addresses that.
CAPELOUTO: Hamrick is in charge of a Senate study committee that he says is taking a big picture approach to improving the juvenile justice code that includes fixing the loopholes. He says that also means lawmakers may be forced to revisit the law that treats 13-year-olds as adults. The Senate committee is expected to make recommendations to the state's General Assembly by January. Meanwhile, Tom Yates says he hopes his daughter did not die in vain and that the state's juvenile justice system will improve because of her. For NPR News, I'm Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.