San Diego Before most people knew the shooter at Santana High School's first name was Charles, not Andy, District Attorney Paul Pfingst announced his intention to try him as an adult at a news conference three hours after the 9:22 a.m. shooting. It seemed a hastily considered move but, in reality, was one dictated by law. "There was no decision-making process," said a spokesman for the district attorney's office, "because Proposition 21 requires that someone 14 years or older charged with murder with special circumstances be tried as an adult."
Killing a peace officer to avoid arrest, lying in wait for the victim, or killing somebody in the process of another felony such as robbery or burglary are examples of the 23 legally specified special circumstances that can accompany a murder. The special circumstance in the Charles Williams case is the fact that he killed multiple victims. "Attempted murders wouldn't do it," says Tom McArdle, chief of the appellate division of the district attorney's office. "There might have been some question about the lying in wait; his going into the bathroom and getting his stuff ready and waiting for somebody to come along, and maybe a little further investigation to find out exactly what happened to see if it indeed fit that special circumstance. But once we heard that two victims had died, it was a no-brainer."
In March of 2000, 62 percent of California voters approved Proposition 21, which was titled the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act. As the title suggests, the measure was designed to combat organized juvenile crime. Among many other things -- the sheer size of Proposition 21 was one aspect its critics denounced -- it made it illegal to recruit new gang members, to intimidate witnesses, and to prevent kids from leaving gangs -- all stock practices of street gangs. But it also transferred from judges to prosecutors the discretion as to whether to try a child as an adult. However, the Fourth District Court of Appeals, on February 7, ruled 2-to-1 that the removal of the judge's discretion with regard to the trying of children as adults violated the separation of powers principles in the Constitution. Another San Diego County case -- involving the Carmel Valley assault on Mexican migrant workers by eight North County teenage boys last July -- is at the center of the issue. District Attorney Paul Pfingst on February 15 announced the decision to appeal the Appeals Court ruling to the California Supreme Court. He is the first district attorney in California to do so.
The issue may confront him again in the Santee shooting case. Charles Williams's defense attorneys did not enter a plea at his arraignment in adult court because they are considering launching their own challenge to Proposition 21.
The proposition has been mentioned by the district attorney and all the media outlets covering the Santana High shooting as the reason Charles Williams will stand trial as an adult. Yet, the truth is, had the Santana shooting happened before the passage of Proposition 21, Charles Williams more than likely would have stood trial as an adult anyway. "Pfingst, properly, would have made the same decision that he did here," says Bob Fellmeth of USD's Law School's Children's Advocacy Institute. "Even under prior law, it was a presumed adult case if it was special-circumstances murder. What Proposition 21 did was it extended the trial-as-adult discretion of the prosecutor into a huge list of crimes without court intervention. But in Santee, you've got a case of multiple first-degree murder. For that, the prosecutor's discretion has always been there."
The difference is, pre-Proposition 21, Pfingst's discretion could have been overruled by a juvenile-court judge. "There would not have been a direct file in the adult court," McArdle explains. "What you would have done before Prop 21 is file the petition in the juvenile court and make an allegation that he is presumptively unfit for juvenile treatment. You would have a hearing on that allegation in the juvenile court, and that juvenile-court judge would look at five facts that relate to fitness. And since the juvenile is presumed to be unfit, it would be the juvenile's burden to show that he was fit, according to each and every one of the five factors the court has to consider."
The factors judges used to consider dealt with the minor's prior record, the circumstances of the crime, and his amenability to rehabilitation. McArdle believes that, even if Williams still had this right, he would probably end up in adult court. "I can't think of a juvenile judge or referee that would not order him to stand trial as an adult," McArdle says.
Still, the final decision would have been a judge's to make, and Fellmeth and other critics of Proposition 21 believe it should still be that way. Because a judge has the ability to make a decision in, as he puts it, a "fact-rich environment...where all the facts relevant to the kid's rehabilitation prospects can be brought out."
Fellmeth cites lower recidivism rates in juvenile cases as compared to adult cases as a good reason to keep open the option of juvenile court to all juvenile criminals. The impossibility of a unified implementation of trial-as-adult discretion among prosecutors statewide concerns him. "But the most important aspect of juvenile court," Fellmeth says, "is it's confidential, which means the kid can rehabilitate himself and not go through life with this big red mark CRIMINAL on his forehead. That's a very big difference. It allows you to start all over again and not have the stigma attached to you for the rest of your life. We want to rehabilitate them because kids are works in progress, they're not hardened yet. So those of us in children's advocacy would like this decision to be made by a judge who can hear all of the facts."