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How do juvenile suspects wind up charged as adults?

Attorneys sometimes refer to the offenses simply as the "seven deadlies," short for the "seven deadly sins," crimes that can push suspects ages 13 to 16 out of Georgia's juvenile justice system and into adult court.

The colloquial title is easier to recall than the crimes themselves: aggravated child molestation, aggravated sexual battery, aggravated sodomy, rape, voluntary manslaughter, armed robbery using a firearm and, of course, murder.

Three counts of murder, in the case of 15-year-old Rufus Lanard Burks, whom Columbus police charged Wednesday in the Jan. 4 homicides of Gloria Short, her 17-year-old son Caleb Short, and her 10-year-old granddaughter Gianna Lindsey.

Burks' preliminary hearing in Columbus Recorder's Court is set for 2 p.m. Monday. He is one of three teenagers charged in the case. The others are Jervarceay Tapley, 17, and Raheam Gibson, 19.

Burks, a Spencer High student, is being held in the Crisp County Youth Detention Center in Cordele, Ga., police said. Beside murder, he is charged with two counts of auto theft and one count each of burglary and using a knife to commit a crime.

Though he's 15 now, Burks on Feb. 24 will turn 16, according to his arrest report. Columbus attorney Jennifer Curry will represent him during his Monday hearing, and presumably during his trial.

Now that he's in custody, the clock is ticking: Once a juvenile is arrested on adult charges, prosecutors have 180 days from the date of that arrest to get a grand jury to indict the teen, though they may seek a 90-day extension should complications arise, such as delays in getting results of lab tests on evidence.

Meanwhile the underage suspect remains incarcerated in a juvenile detention center, as incarcerating minors with adults is prohibited, said Assistant District Attorney Wayne Jernigan Jr., who handles juvenile prosecutions for District Attorney Julia Slater.

Such protocols are outlined in Georgia's "School Safety and Juvenile Justice Reform Act" of 1994, which authorized prosecuting juveniles 13 or older as adults for violent crimes. That year in the Georgia General Assembly, the legislation was designated Senate Bill 440, and attorneys today still refer to it as "S.B. 440" for short.

In fact, "Senate Bill 440" is written at the top of Burks' arrest report. And though the warrant charging a juvenile as an adult is much the same as an adult warrant, authorities often call it a "440 warrant," Jernigan said. It must be signed by a judge, like any other warrant, but it also requires that notice be given to the district attorney, because of that 180-day deadline for indictment.

Designating a juvenile offender an adult is not irrevocable, Jernigan said. The defense counsel and prosecutor later may decide the case belongs in juvenile court and send it back by mutual agreement.

Often juveniles get drawn into crimes by adult offenders who bear the most responsibility, particularly in armed robberies in which the underage suspect's role is minimal, Jernigan said. Though still "a party to the crime" under the law, the minor may have had little understanding of the danger and the consequences of his or her actions.

That is not always the case, Jernigan said: Sometimes the juvenile is the "hardened criminal" who draws an adult into his violent offense. The system is designed for such flexibility, because the facts of each case differ and may require different methods of adjudication.

Though cases of juveniles being charged as adults make headlines, because they involve the most violent crimes, they remain "exceptions to the rule," Jernigan said. The vast majority of juvenile offenders stay in the juvenile justice system. Jernigan said that even juveniles convicted as adults under S.B. 440 remain incarcerated in the juvenile justice system until age 17, at which point they're transferred to prison.

Columbus residents who've heard the horrid circumstances of the three Jan. 4 homicides might ask: Why should juveniles be treated differently than anyone else accused of a heinous crime?

"They should be treated differently because their mental and emotional development is not that of an adult for the purpose of determining punishment," said Burks' defense attorney Jennifer Curry.

"The life experiences of a juvenile differ from an adult's. That may be the catalyst for their actions. A juvenile may not understand the permanency of their actions."

The U.S. Supreme Court has used similar reasoning in limiting the states' authority to pursue the most severe penalties in crimes involving underage offenders. In the case of Roper v. Simmons, the court ruled five to four on March 1, 2005, that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution forbid executing anyone who's younger than 18 at the time of the offense.

For the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "When a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime, the state can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the state cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity."

The justices relied on much the same reasoning as they used in prohibiting capital punishment for the mentally disabled: Those who are immature do not have an adult's experience or judgment to inform their decisions, so they are more susceptible to influence and more likely to behave recklessly with no regard for the consequences.

Wrote Kennedy: "Retribution is not proportional if the law's most severe penalty is imposed on one whose culpability or blameworthiness is diminished, to a substantial degree, by reason of youth and immaturity." The court also observed that more states lately have outlawed juvenile executions or eliminated the death penalty altogether, signaling that more people now feel the death penalty is not appropriate for underage offenders.

A more recent Supreme Court decision, Montgomery v. Louisana, appeared also to limit the states' authority to sentence juveniles to life without parole. That six to three decision, which expanded on the 2012 precedent Miller v. Alabama, was announced Jan. 25. Though the court ruled states could not impose "mandatory" life sentences without parole on those who were underage at the time of their offense, it did not altogether eliminate the penalty.

As the court wrote in Montgomery v. Louisiana, "Miller held that mandatory life without parole for juvenile homicide offenders violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.... By making youth (and all that accompanies it) irrelevant to imposition of that harshest prison sentence, mandatory life without parole poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment."

The Miller decision requires that courts sentencing young offenders consider the defendant's "diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change," the court said.

But that doesn't mean a lower court can't sentence a juvenile to life without parole, the justices wrote: "Although Miller did not foreclose a sentencer's ability to impose life without parole on a juvenile, the court explained that a lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest of children, those whose crimes reflect 'irreparable corruption.'"

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