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A Lesser Standard for Proving Culpability in Juvenile Cases

Jamison KoehlerJuveniles


During my first couple of weeks with the Juvenile Division at the Philadelphia Public Defender’s Office, I took what I believed to be a very strong case to trial. My client had been charged with aggravated assault against another young woman.  I had a couple of witnesses who testified that my client had actually intervened in order to break up the fight.  I had another girl who, waiving her Fifth Amendment rights, testified that she had been the one who had instigated the fight and who injured the complaining witness.  And I had a police officer who stated that, although he was the one who arrested my client, he now had serious doubts about her culpability.

The judge found my client guilty.

Outraged by the verdict, I marched over to the head of the Juvenile Division to complain.  He shook his head and sighed.  I suppose I should have warned you, he said.  It has been years since we last got a not guilty verdict out of this judge.  And no, he said, we would not be recommending an appeal. The judge stated on the record that she had made her determination on the basis of credibility, a finding an upper court would be very unlikely to overturn.

While I have not been doing juvenile work long enough in D.C. to make this determination, I can say that many judges in Philadelphia seemed to be primarily concerned with keeping the kids in the system so that they could get the help they deserved.  The government-funded supervision and assistance is terminated the moment the child is acquitted.  This means that the judges would sometimes look for any excuse to find the juvenile responsible for at least one of the offenses.  Occasionally I would even have parents, who recognized this fact, working against me.  I still remember one father who went up and hugged the school security officer whose testimony had just led to my client’s conviction.

This morning I am in the library of the D.C. Superior Court building awaiting the verdict in a juvenile case that finished yesterday.  It has taken me a while to re-familiarize myself with the terminology used in juvenile court; for example, how it is an “initial hearing” and not an arraignment, a “respondent” and not a defendant, and so on.  The irony is that, while adult and juvenile courts use the exact same term to describe the burden of proof needed to find a person culpable, “beyond a reasonable doubt” is clearly a lesser standard – in Philadelphia at least — when applied to juvenile cases.