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Grappling with Juvenile Offenses: Uncharted Territory in the Legal System


Most days when working in a typical law office, you see cases that have a known route for success like possession or DWI. Usually, these cases have a defense that works for the client, or a guilty plea that resolves itself with remedial courses. But what happens when these offenses intersect in a way that has no preexisting case law to look at for advice? When defenses do not provide a clear answer for which direction to take your client?

This is the issue we deal with today. You know your client is not at fault and that propels you forward in finding something, anything, that can relieve them of some guilt in the legal system. It’s their first mark on their record, they are a juvenile, a young juvenile, and faced with a murder charge as a result of extenuating circumstances. It forces a person to grapple with how to deal with young people who commit serious crimes. How could a young juvenile be faced with a charge typically associated with people much older than them? How can a juvenile be expected to bear the consequences of actions that were beyond his control?

Section 19.02 of the Texas Penal Code defines a murder offense as if a person:

(1) intentionally or knowingly causes the death of an individual; or

(2) intends to cause serious bodily injury and commits an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual

A person might think: “well isn’t there some sort of protection for minors? What about the responsibility of guardians around them?”

People under 18 are only legally protected against receiving the death penalty. Parents are guardians only have liability for a child’s conduct when the issue deals with property, as shown in § 41.001. Does this point out a flaw in our legal system for children who really don’t have the ability to make decisions on their own?

As guns become increasingly more common in Texas, we often hear of accidental shootings when a child mistakenly gets their hand on a gun. Who is at fault? How do you prove that the child did not mean to pull the trigger? It seems that most accidental shootings caused by children have the parents charged. But as intent is defined, they still meant to pull the trigger. So, that leads to the question of where we draw the line. We don’t charge a 4-year-old with murder because they don’t understand the consequences of their intent. But what about a 6-year-old? 10? What factor decides when a child becomes responsible and capable of forming their own intent?

What about if the child was acting under the instruction of an adult? Is someone under the age of 18 responsible for listening to the trusted adults around them? What about someone not yet even a teenager?

This could reform the way we view intent. Is it fair to claim that it is the child’s own intent to commit the crime when they were instructed to do so?

It seems that there is a lot of gray area when it comes to juveniles committing high level violent offenses. We need our case law to more accurately define what a child’s intent means and if that intent can be interfered with by guardians.