The intention of Texas' juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate young people when possible, even when they're charged with serious crimes, Jack Carnegie says. And Carnegie hopes a decision he won on behalf of a pro bono client before Houston's 1st Court of Appeals reinforces that fact.
The case, Cameron Moon v. State of Texas, issued on July 30, reverses the decision of a juvenile court judge to certify a 16-year-old to stand trial as an adult in that case. A jury later convicted Cameron Moon of murder and sent him to prison for 30 years.
"The public doesn't appreciate what goes on," Carnegie, a partner in the Houston office of Strasburger & Price, says of the state's certification process for juveniles. Carnegie, who normally practices corporate litigation, took the juvenile appeal at the behest of Christene Wood, a former colleague, who knew Moon.
"When I started this, the last thing I was thinking about was getting a murder conviction reversed," Carnegie says. "And when people see that, they don't understand what happened first.''
The background to Moon, according to the decision, is as follows. Moon was detained in connection with a fatal shooting in 2008, confessed and was placed in juvenile detention. Later that year, prosecutors filed a motion asking the juvenile court to waive jurisdiction and transfer his case to an adult court. The juvenile court approved the motion and Moon timely filed a motion contending the court erred in waiving jurisdiction after he was sentenced to 30 years in prison, according to the decision.
To assess whether a juvenile can be certified to be tried as an adult, a juvenile court judge must consider several factors under § 54.02 of the Texas Family Code including the "sophistication and maturity" of the juvenile and "the prospects of adequate protection of the public and the likelihood of the rehabilitation of the child" among other things, according to the decision.
The 1st Court found there was "no evidence" to support that Moon was sufficiently mature enough to waive his constitutional rights and aid in the preparation of his defense.
The 1st Court also disagreed with the lower court's ruling about Moon's likelihood of rehabilitation. In the opinion, the 1st Court noted that a forensic psychiatrist testified that Moon was "mild mannered, polite and dependent" and that he "has little inclination towards violence" and would benefit from therapy in the Texas Youth Commission. They also noted that Moon's probation officer testified that "Moon is one of the best kids I have seen come through. . ."
"Consequently, we conclude that the juvenile court's finding that 'there is little, if any, prospect of adequate protection of the public and likelihood reasonable rehabilitation of Moon . . .' was so against the great weight and preponderance of the evidence as to be manifestly unjust," wrote Justice Jim Sharp in an opinion joined by Justices Terry Jennings and Laura Carter Higley. The decision vacates the district court's conviction of Moon.
"From all accounts Cameron was a good kid. He got himself in a bad situation," Carnegie says. "But when officers from the juvenile facility say 'Hey, this is a good kid and he doesn't need to be incarcerated,' that's extraordinary.''
"Trying to get the law right is important to me. And when you think it's broken you ought to try to fix it," Carnegie says of his reasons for handling the pro bono case. "Sometimes you can't, but you should try.''
Dan McCrory, an assistant Harris County District Attorney who represents the state on appeal in the case, says he plans to file a petition for discretionary review at the Court of Criminal Appeals.
"I believe the court of appeals did not place enough attention on the nature of the offense that this juvenile committed,'' McCrory says. "I think it's fair to consider the seriousness of the crime . . . ."