A Houston teen sentenced to 30 years in prison should not have been tried as an adult, the state's highest criminal court ruled Wednesday in a decision calling for greater judicial scrutiny before young defendants are transferred into the adult court system.
"The transfer of a juvenile offender from juvenile court to criminal court for prosecution as an adult should be regarded as the exception, not the rule," Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Tom Price wrote in the majority opinion, agreeing with an earlier ruling by the 1st Court of Appeals in Houston.
Cameron Moon of Houston was 16 when he was indicted for fatally shooting Christopher Seabreak in a fake drug deal set up to rob buyers. He was convicted and sentenced in 2010 to 30 years in prison and is eligible for parole in 2023.
Trial judges can transfer a juvenile's case to adult court after considering criteria including whether the crime was against a person or property, the juvenile defendant's maturity level and previous criminal record.
The court's ruling zeroes in on how prosecutors prove a juvenile has sufficient maturity to be tried as an adult. In Moon's case, prosecutors called one witness, the arresting officer.
In Wednesday's opinion, Price, citing a 1995 change in the law, said that a juvenile court should "take pains to 'show its work' in coming to that certification decision.
"This legislative purpose is not well served by a transfer order lacking in specifics that the appellate court is forced to speculate as to the juvenile court’s reasons for finding transfer to be appropriate or the facts the juvenile court found to substantiate those reasons," Price wrote.
The Houston Chronicle has reported that when Moon was certified, Harris County judges were granting prosecutors' requests for certifications about 95 percent of the time.
The Court of Criminal Appeals' decision sends Moon's case back to Harris County, where a spokesman for the prosecutor's office said they were "disappointed" about the court's ruling.
"But we're going to revisit the case, and there's a possibility we will try to recertify him," said Jeff McShan, spokesman for the Harris County district attorney's office.
"It's a nice Christmas present," said Jack Carnegie, Moon's attorney, adding that the ruling gives trial courts better guidance on what they need to do certify juvenile defendants. "This is a roadmap for how you have to do it now."