Friday, February 10, 2012

15 and Life to Go

A Missouri court just sentenced Alyssa Bustamonte to Life imprisonment with the possibility of parole for the murder of a nine year old girl when Alyssa was fifteen.

As you know, I take a special interest in these cases because it's what I do in my office.  When a juvenile commits a specified violent crime, there is always an analysis that we conduct to determine whether we should try the juvenile in adult court or move it to family court. 

Here's what we look for and how it compares with the facts of Alyssa's case:

1) Seriousness of the offense - It doesn't get more serious than murder.
2) Victim's opinion - I can imagine the family of Elizabeth Olten (the victim) wanted her tried in supreme court.
3) Prior record - We don't know in this case.
4) Danger to the community - Alyssa's stated goal was to see what it felt like to kill someone.  She celebrated the murder in her journal after completing it.  I'd say she's a danger.
5) Evidence of guilt - She confessed, wrote about it in a journal, and brought investigators to the grave.  Pretty good evidence.
6) Character of defendant - see number 4.
7) Purpose of the sentence - A murder sentence is to punish and deter others from committing the crime.  Sending the case to family court does not create a deterrence to murder.
8) Age - The defendant's only 15.

This is a glimpse into the analysis we use to determine when a juvenile case will be tried in supreme court vs. family court.  The only thing on Alyssa's side was her age.  In a murder case, that's usually not enough.

What do you think?


  1. Why does the victim's opinion matter? All other things equal, shouldn't a murderer be dealt with the same, even if the victim's family is more/less forgiving? I mean, I am going to live in the same state (probably) when Alyssa gets out, so why shouldn't I have a say?

  2. The District Attorney has full discretion to handle a case in the manner he or she sees fit (hence the name of the blog) within the boundaries of the law. The victim's opinion is one factor we use in determining what to do with a case. There are many others.

    While the victim does not control the proceedings, shouldn't the person who the crime happened to be allowed their say? Part of the job of an ADA is explaining to a victim what is happening to a case and why. I've had families of murder victims tell me they don't care what the sentence is and I've had harassment victims yell at me because I couldn't keep the defendant in for life.

    A victim has a right to speak at sentencing and let their opinion be known on the disposition. I've seen judges withdraw consent to a plea deal when a victim says they are unhappy with the disposition. It's rare, but it does happen. So, the victim's wishes are important, but they are only one factor we consider in analyzing a case.

    One of the most difficult conversations is explaining the correct disposition to a victim or family that is against their wishes. Maybe that should be a blog topic?

  3. Quinton: No offense, and with all due respect but spoken like someone who has never lost a family member to violent crime. It's true--the law is the law and if you break it there are guidelines in place in terms of what to do with you regardless of what surviving family members think but victims' voices serve many purposes. In murder cases, the true victim is no longer there to speak so family members and friends and loved ones are there to speak for them. You make a valid point but I think you might feel differently if someone you loved had been murdered. Also, sometimes it becomes a larger issue. Recently in my city we've had a number of brutal beatings. One of them ended in a young man's death and his family has helped galvanize the community, starting a letter-writing campaign to the DA's office, the police commissioner and our mayor asking for the harshest penalties available, high bail, etc. We want to send a message that this type of senseless violence is not acceptable. It's not just unacceptable to HIS family but to our society. Thus, we're asking our lawmakers and law enforcers to send a message to other potential criminals by meting out harsh punishment. When someone is murdered, that should matter to other people.