Vail Daily column: When a juvenile is tried as an adult
October 30, 2012
If Austin Sigg is convicted in the death of Jessica Ridgeway, one thing is for certain; he will not be put to death.
How can I be so certain? After all, the death penalty is available in Colorado, Sigg is accused of the young Westminster girl’s kidnapping, murder, and brutal mutilation, and reports are that he confessed. He is accused, too, of attempted kidnapping and murder in a second case and law enforcement would like to speak with him about the failed abductions of at least two other children.
“Good lawyering?” you might ask.
No. The answer is more straightforward; Austin Reed Sigg will not be 18 until January of next year and, because of his age, he cannot – and will not – suffer the death penalty.
At almost-but-not-quite-18, in the eyes of the law – if not those of the devil – Sigg is a mere child. A cold-blooded, murderous one perhaps, but a child nonetheless. The law is clear on this; until one reaches the what sometimes seems the arbitrary age of 18, one is not yet an adult and neither enjoys adult privileges nor may suffer adult consequences. This a matter of long and largely uncontested Western tradition.
The law is often constituted of bright lines: You stole or you did not, your BAC was over or else under 0.80 when you drove, you’re guilty or you’re not. Age 18 is like that. On the one side, you are a poor deluded waif. On the other, for the same offense, you pay a different piper. Agree or not, that’s simply how it is.
And yet …
The law provides that – at least in some circumstances – a child may be tried as an adult. At precisely what age, and for precisely what offense differs from one state to the next.
In Colorado, in determining whether to try a juvenile as an adult, several factors are considered, including: The juvenile’s age, the type of offense, and the extent of the juvenile’s past history of delinquency. As each of these factors increases, so too does the chance that the juvenile will be tried as an adult. Under Colorado law, the absolute youngest age at which a child may be tried as an adult is 12.
The district attorney for the jurisdiction in which the child is to be charged may either “remove” the case from juvenile to district court or may “direct file” in the district court. Different criteria must be met for direct filing depending on the child’s age.
In the case of Sigg, who is older than 16, in order to “direct” file, the D.A. must advance that the accused is alleged to have: Committed a Class 1 or Class 2 felony (felonies of the most serious sort); committed a crime of violence; committed a felony offense involving a weapon and threaten deadly force; committed vehicular homicide, vehicular assault or felonious arson; committed a Class 3 felony or a sexual assault and, within the previous two years, was adjudicated a delinquent for an act constituting a felony; or committed a delinquent act which constitutes a felony and has been determined to be a habitual juvenile offender.
Juveniles over the age of 16 who have been charged by direct file and convicted may be sentenced as adults.
So what about Sigg? He is over 16, appears to satisfy the criteria necessary for direct filing, and District Attorney Scott Storey has made clear his intention is to try Sigg as an adult. If Sigg is tired and convicted why may he not be put to death?
The answer is found in the 2005 United States Supreme Court case of Roper v. Simmons where the justices determined that the death penalty may not be imposed against a juvenile even in the case of aggravated murder.
Citing the 8th and 14th Amendments (respectively, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment and the right to due process of the law), the court banned the execution of those under the age of 18.
Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy stated: “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.”
With one stroke, the death penalty was off the table, even for the most depraved crimes. There has since been a further move by the court to deny life sentences without the possibility of parole to underage offenders. In 2010, in the companion cases of Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, the court ruled that juveniles found guilty of crimes other than homicide could not be sentenced to life without parole and mulled over whether life without parole could ever be imposed upon one under the age of 18.
Despite what demons may be lurking within the soul of Austin Sigg, he (and they) will not be exterminated by the state. Of that, you may be certain. And if modern trends prevail, he may one day, even if convicted, have at least the chance of being out on our streets again.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECOTV 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his e-mail addresses, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.