By Ken Little
Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Bailey Jr. will reserve decision until Thursday on whether a 17-year-old former South Greene High School student, who allegedly stabbed a fellow student multiple times last September, will be prosecuted on an attempted murder charge in adult criminal court or remain in the juvenile justice system.
Closing arguments Tuesday at the transfer hearing by Public Defender Anita Leger and Assistant District Attorney General Cecil Mills Jr. capped nearly eight hours of testimony by classmates of the students involved, school employees, counselors and an expert medical witness who assessed the defendant several months after the stabbing, along with a school videotape of the knife attack and a taped interview of the defendant by detectives.
The stabbing victim, 15-year-old Daniel A. Birchfield Jr., recovered from three stab wounds and returned to school. The 16-year-old allegedly stabbed him because he was upset about a girl they both knew. The accused student has since turned 17 and has been held in a juvenile detention facility in Johnson City since the Sept. 24, 2013, incident.
If Bailey decides to keep the teenager in the juvenile system, he will be released when he turns 19. A conviction in adult court on attempted first-degree murder could mean a state prison sentence of 15 to 25 years.
Leger argued that the teenager should have been receiving psychiatric treatment in a hospital setting before the stabbing occurred. Putting him in prison, she said, offers no opportunity for rehabilitation.
“As an adult, the only thing that is available is a six-by-six cell with a mattress and a cheese sandwich at lunch,” Leger said.
Mills pointed out the serious nature of the crime, while acknowledging the age of the defendant.
“This was a clear attempt to murder somebody. It wasn’t an assault that this person would spend two years (in custody) and be released,” Mills said.
Bailey asked Leger what ripple effect there might be by keeping the teenager in the juvenile justice system rather than being prosecuted as an adult.
“What message does this send to other 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds who are contemplating school violence?” he said.
Mills admitted there are no rehabilitation programs for someone like the defendant in the adult system.
“The only thing is: ‘I don’t want to spend time in jail ever again,’” Mills told Bailey.
The teenager’s mother and stepfather were in the courtroom throughout the hearing. Several classmates of the defendant and Birchfield offered emotional testimony Tuesday morning.
During an interview Greene County sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Mike Fincher had with the teenager the day of the stabbing, the defendant broke down several times and sobbed loudly.
“My feelings got in the way of my judgment over everything,” he told detectives.
Bailey said he needed some time to review psychiatric evaluations of the defendant and the volume of other evidence presented at Tuesday’s hearing.
“It’s a difficult case for both sides,” he said. “The facts of this case are difficult.”