Washington Court Did Not Consider Teen Brain Development in Assessing Criminal Culpability

Teenagers sometimes act impulsively, and, unfortunately, if someone gets hurt as a result of those impulsive actions, it could result in Washington criminal charges.  In a recent case, a juvenile defendant challenged his conviction, arguing in part the court should have considered adolescent brain development and maturity in assessing his culpability for assault.

According to the appeals court’s opinion, three friends were in eighth grade at the same middle school.  The court used pseudonyms for all of the boys: Timothy Martin, Andrew Christopher, and Bob Simpson.  While Christopher was sitting on a desk talking to Simpson one day, Martin came up from behind and put Christopher into a choke hold.

Martin said it was a professional wrestling choke hold that he had seen during professional wrestling matches.  He knew it could stop a person’s breathing and cause them to become unconscious.  Martin said he wanted to show the choke hold to Simpson and did not mean to interrupt Christopher’s air or blood flow.

When the teacher turned around and saw what was happening, he yelled to Martin to let Christopher go, but Martin said he did not hear the teacher.  He said he released Christopher because he got “very heavy.” Christopher collapsed, unconscious.

Christopher was injured when he fell, sustaining a gash on his chin needing six stitches, a cut on his nose, and a broken jaw that had to be wired shut for six weeks.   Martin cried and apologized.

The state charged Martin with second degree assault by strangulation or suffocation and an alternative means of committing assault in the second degree by intention assault that recklessly inflicts substantial bodily harm.  Martin stipulated the injuries constituted “substantial bodily harm.”

Martin testified at trial.  He said he knew the hold could render someone unconscious if they were left in it too long.  A psychologist evaluated Martin and found he did not intend to choke Christopher into unconsciousness.   However, the state moved to preclude the psychologist from opining on the defendant’s intent.  The defendant conceded the psychologist could not testify to Martin’s intent, but instead offered the testimony to show he was engaging in the type of impulsive behavior common for a fourteen-year-old boy. The defendant’s attorney argued reckless indifference would be based on the standard of a reasonable fourteen-year-old, and the psychologist could testify as to typical and reasonable behavior for an adolescent.  The court excluded testimony from the psychologist as to the intent of the defendant, but reserved ruling on the extent to which he could testify.

The psychologist testified about juvenile brain development.  He testified that the prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until after the age of 20 and sometimes as late as 25, affecting adolescent decision-making.  In closing argument, the defendant’s attorney argued that the court should consider the defendant’s “age, lack of maturity, and underdeveloped sense of action and consequences…”  The defense further argued that based on the testimony, the defendant’s behavior was not a gross deviation from the conduct of a reasonable boy his age.

The prosecution argued that youthfulness was to be considered in sentencing, not in determining culpability.

The juvenile court found the defendant guilty of second degree assault under both subsections of the statute.  The defendant requested a manifest injustice finding and a downward departure from the standard sentencing range.  The court did so, converting fourteen days’ confinement to electronic monitoring, and imposing 12 months community supervision and 80 hours community service.  The defendant appealed.

The defendant argued the juvenile court abused its discretion in excluding the psychologist’s testimony regarding the defendant’s motivation.  The appeals court found, based on case law, that an expert cannot testify as to another’s motivations or intent.  The appeals court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the questions were intended to address an adolescent’s impulsivity, finding there was no case law supporting a position that impulsivity could be a defense to an assault charge.

The defendant also argued the trial court erred in not considering adolescent brain development in determining whether his conduct violated applicable standards.  He argued the court should apply the reasonable person standard of a fourteen-year-old boy instead of the adult standard of care.  The appeals court noted that the defendant cited cases involving sentencing and Miranda warnings.  He did not cite any decision holding a court should consider brain development in assessing culpability or intent of a teenager.  With no case law applying a different mens rea standard of care for teenagers in a criminal prosecution, a change in the law would have to come from either the legislature or the state Supreme Court.

Judge Fearing’s concurring opinion, however, proposed courts should address the science regarding adolescent brains and development if the legislature does not.  The concurring opinion noted that there were also arguments that the courts should not interfere with the legislature’s role by invalidating death penalty or life without parole sentences for minors.

Judge Korsmo’s concurring opinion, however, called the idea of treating immaturity as a defense to criminal liability “an exceptionally dangerous idea.” He stated it is the legislature’s role to define criminal law and punishments.  He also stated the defendant’s argument is “bad policy.” He argued the authority to exempt an individual from generally applicable laws is authority to discriminate.  Youth and immaturity are properly considered during sentencing, and should not be considered in assessing culpability.

The appeals court affirmed the defendant’s conviction, but acknowledged the importance of the questions raised by the defendant’s arguments.

If your child is facing criminal charges, an experienced Washington criminal defense attorney will fight to protect your child’s rights.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to schedule a consultation to discuss your case.