Shared from the 12/20/2016 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Juveniles tried as adults on rise

Decision where to place youths is life-changing


When Houston police found former Texas A&M University football star Antonio Armstrong and his wife fatally shot inside their home last July, they asked the couple’s 16-year-old son what happened.

When his story about a gun-wielding burglar didn’t match the evidence, the teen was arrested and charged with capital murder in the high-profile case.

Now, his defense lawyers are bracing for a fight, with prosecutors expected to proceed with efforts to convince a judge the teen should face trial as an adult, a process known as certification.

It’s a life-changing decision faced by a growing number of juveniles this year in Harris County, and it is a perilous one, since the juvenile justice system is complicated, no matter what the charge, with an exception for every rule.

The number of juveniles certified as adults in Harris County has surged 25 percent this year to 36, the highest level since 2013 — even though the number of juveniles arrested during the same period has declined.

The surge has left judges, prosecutors and advocates torn between trying to keep children in the juvenile justice system while faced with courtroom evidence that youthful offenders may, in some instances, face more leniency in the adult system.

The risks are high for young defendants. Probation is not uncommon for teens in adult court, but nor are life sentences, and serious offenses can bring a lifetime of consequences.

Advocates for juveniles have long criticized the certification process, saying it is often applied arbitrarily and can mean juveniles are sent to adult jails to wait for trial. Because they have to be segregated from adults, youths spend their days and nights in de-facto solitary confinement.

The Armstrong teen would automatically get life in prison if convicted in adult court of capital murder. If he stays in juvenile court, a jury would assess punishment.

“We have a case where all the facts point to this being a pretty good kid, as far as character and his impact on the community,” said attorney Rick DeToto, who is representing the teen with attorney Chris Collings and who are arguing against certification. “That may not be relevant to the guilt/innocence phase, but it could matter in a punishment phase.”

Juveniles as young as 14 years old can be certified as adults for any felony criminal charge, though prosecutors generally seek certification for crimes involving violence or weapons.

Once in the adult system, juveniles often fare better than adults with judges. Their cases tend to be less violent, giving them a better chance at probation or deferred adjudication, a form of probation in which the charges eventually are dismissed if the probationary term is completed without incident.

“It’s extremely common for a juvenile to get certified on an armed robbery and end up with a deferred adjudication,” said defense attorney JoAnne Musick, a board-certified expert in juvenile law. “In some ways, the kids want to be certified because then they may be able to get bail and get out. … The down side is that if they violate probation for aggravated robbery, they are looking at five years to life in prison.”

‘Interesting irony’

Of the 33 juvenile certification cases resolved in 2014 and 2015, one-third ended in probation, all for armed robbery, court records show.

The other cases — which included two capital murders, armed sexual assault and kidnapping, participating in organized crime and a string of burglaries and robberies — drew sentences ranging from 18 months in a state jail facility to 20 years in state prison.

All but five of the cases involved firearms, but the weapons were discharged in just two, records show.

State District Judge Mike Schneider, one of three judges who preside over juvenile cases in Harris County, declined to discuss specific cases but said further study is needed.

“It’s an interesting irony that for years and years the discussion has been about the dangers of certifying kids and how unfair it is when we have a separate system built for the needs of children,” Schneider said. “And then contrast that with the possibility of, potentially, getting a more beneficial and less-enduring record than in the juvenile system.”

The leniency didn’t always pay off, however. Of the 11 defendants who received probation, five were brought back to court for revocations, subjecting them to the full range of punishment, records show.

“It’s a complex process because no one can predict the future,” Schneider said. “For those who get probation, are they completing it successfully?”

For victims and prosecutors, however, seeing an armed robber or other offender get probation is difficult.

“It’s frustrating for prosecutors to see that happening,” said Assistant Harris County District Attorney Martina Longoria. “The victim could care less about how old a defendant is.”

Sentencing options

The sharp increase in certifications in Harris County appears to be driven by a rise in the number of juveniles charged with armed robbery, according to court records.

Juvenile arrests for robbery increased by more than 33 percent, from 326 in 2014 to 436 this year through November, though the number charged with homicides has remained about the same.

Reasons behind the increase are unclear, though some officials blame easier access to guns, more focus by law enforcement and a proliferation of surveillance video. Last month, the Houston Police Department launched a stand-alone website,, saying the ever-increasing number of photos and videos has led to an increase in the number of arrests.

The juvenile system can be complicated, no matter what the charge, with an exception for every rule.

Prosecutors seeking to send a juvenile to adult court argue that the teen is a danger to the community with little potential for rehabilitation. Judges weigh

›› Read more about the shooting deaths of the Armstrongs at several factors in making their decisions.

Those who are not certified as adults — either because prosecutors do not seek it or because a judge denies it — can be subject to two systems of punishment if convicted.

If a juvenile is not certified to stand trial as an adult, prosecutors then decide whether to seek “indeterminate sentencing,” in which the defendant is automatically released from state custody at age 19, if not before, or “determinate sentencing,” where the youth would face a maximum 40-year sentence if convicted.

Those defendants under determinate sentence would stay in ayouth detention facility until they are 19, and then a judge would decide whether to release them or send them to adult prison to finish their sentences.

Determinate sentencing allows for probation, which is a path to stay out of jail. But because it does not allow for deferred adjudication, a conviction will remain on the permanent record.

The teen charged in the Armstrong case remains behind bars awaiting possible certification, trial and an uncertain future. If he is convicted, the most lenient path entails not being certified and then being punished under the determinate sentencing laws, which means he would get out by age 19, if not before.

The most severe punishment begins with certification, then a conviction on a charge of capital murder and an automatic life sentence.

Now 17, he adamantly denies killing his parents and has drawn an outpouring of support from family and friends.

Story questioned

Antonio Armstrong and his wife, Dawn, both 42, were found fatally shot in their southwest Houston home in the early morning hours of July 29. The teen said he heard shots and called 911, but police questioned his story.

The Armstrong couple ran a small chain of local fitness centers, and Antonio Armstrong was assistant pastor of the Gulf-ton-area church where his mother is pastor. The couple also have two other children.

DeToto, the teen’s attorney, said the charges don’t make sense.

“He’s a good student, good athlete, respectful, hard-working and a good brother,” DeToto said. “A whole lot of people who knew him and his parents have great things to say about him.”

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