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Raleigh mass shooter will be prosecuted as an adult, but sentenced as a juvenile

A Raleigh police officer talks with a resident on October 14, 2022, the morning after five people died in a mass shooting in a northeast neighborhood of the city.
Matt Ramey
A Raleigh police officer talks with a resident on October 14, 2022, the morning after five people died in a mass shooting in a northeast neighborhood of the city.

Multiple news outlets have identified the alleged shooter who killed five people and wounded two others in northeast Raleigh on Thursday as 15-year-old Austin Thompson.

Thompson's alleged victims included his older brother, James, who was 16 and a junior at Knightdale High School. If formally charged with first-degree murder, the teenage suspect would be treated as an adult in criminal court, despite his age.

Under North Carolina criminal justice law, a juvenile is anyone between the ages of 10 and 17 and is subject to a different sentencing scheme than adults. But that doesn't mean young defendants don't end up before judges and juries essentially as adults.

"There's nothing about the recent changes to state law that has made it any harder for the prosecution if it wants, or the court, to treat a case like this in superior court," said Barbara Fedders, a professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law and director of its Youth Justice Clinic.

Effective in 2019, North Carolina became one of the last states to raise the age of juvenile defendants to 17.

But state law still allows courts to transfer felony cases involving 13-to-17 year-old suspects to superior court on a prosecutor's motion. And when it comes to alleged first-degree murder, where probable cause has been established, anyone 13 or older must be treated as adults in superior court upon motion by the prosecutor.

But Fedders said sentencing in a case like the one involving the alleged Raleigh shooter would be completely different than if it involved an adult.

"A person cannot be executed for a crime they committed under 18 and that's by United States Supreme Court case law," she explained.

And there are court constraints on both sentences of life with and without parole. To sentence a juvenile to life without parole, the court would have to find the defendant is beyond redemption or incapable of rehabilitation.

And in a 4-3 majority ruling earlier this year, the North Carolina Supreme Court's four Democrats held that in life sentences with parole, juveniles must become eligible for release after serving 40 years.

"But eligible for parole and getting parole are two very, very different things," Fedders added.

As Fedders explained, the court majority's rationale in that case, known as State v. Kelliher, had a lot do with the difference between juveniles and adults when it comes to brain development, that juveniles are more impulsive.

"They don't engage in any kind of meaningful cost-benefit determination before engaging in criminal activity," Fedders explained.

And the Kelliher court said rehabilitated juveniles must have a legitimate chance at reintegrating into society.

The mass shooting in Raleigh has led to an almost inevitable cascade of demands for more gun control.

On Friday, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman told the Raleigh News & Observer that she has begun the process of moving the mass shooting case to superior court.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.