Murder Charges In Death Of Peoria Teen Raise Questions About Controversial State Laws

Aug 23, 2019

As Peoria grapples with gun violence among youth, criminal justice advocates argue the county is resorting to controversial measures.

The recent shooting death of 16-year-old Zarious Fair led to adult murder charges for a 14-year-old, as well as murder charges for an accompanying teen who was unarmed.

Yesterday, 14-year-old Zaveon Marks pleaded not guilty in the shooting death of Fair, which allegedly resulted from a botched robbery. Fair’s death marked the city’s 11th homicide of the year.

If convicted, Marks could face up to 75 years in prison. In the juvenile system, he could only have been held until age 21.

Charging juveniles as adults

Illinois law, as in many other states, requires certain juvenile offenses to be tried in adult court: youth 16 years and older are automatically transferred if they commit “(i) first degree murder, (ii) aggravated criminal sexual assault, or (iii) aggravated battery with a firearm . . . where the [youth] personally discharged a firearm.”

But kids ages 13 to 15 can also be tried as adults under a discretionary transfer, if a judge decides it’s in the public’s best interest.

“Charging a child as an adult, whether automatically or after a hearing in juvenile court for the younger children, is not common practice, even in the U.S,” said Betsy Clarke, director of the Juvenile Justice Initiative. “And it’s not used at all in other developed countries.”

Once adult charges have been filed, there’s no pathway for a case to be moved back to juvenile court. Clarke said this is especially problematic with automatic transfers.

“That could be within hours or days of the offense, when very little is known about the circumstances of the offense, the circumstances of the youth,” Clarke said. “That is a very poor process. It doesn’t involve individual decision making.”

In arguing against the practice, juvenile justice experts point to a bounty of evidence that putting kids in the adult system actually increases the likelihood they’ll commit another crime.

It is also widely held that the developmental traits of juveniles — their impulsivity, susceptibility to peer pressure and underdeveloped decision making skills — render them less culpable for their behavior, but also highly responsive to intervention and rehabilitative efforts.

The Illinois General Assembly, in recent years, has moved to limit the circumstances under which juveniles can be charged as adults –– which advocates argue hasn’t made communities any less safe.

“Prior to the policies on automatic transfers being changed, Cook County alone had about 350 cases of youth being tried in adult court,” said Korynna Lopez of the Illinois Justice Project. “Numbers haven’t spiked to reflect that change was dangerous.”

In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, 124 juvenile proceedings were moved to adult court in 24 Illinois counties. The other 78 counties, including Peoria, did not report data on such proceedings.

The Peoria County State’s Attorney’s office declined to comment on Marks’ case. His jury trial is set for Oct. 21.

Felony murder rule

Meanwhile, the murder charges against Marks’ alleged co-conspirator, 18-year-old Doyle Nelson, come as Illinois’ felony murder law faces fire.

In a high profile case earlier this month, a group of five teenagers from Chicago were charged in the death of their friend during an alleged attempted carjacking in Lake County. None of them pulled the trigger -- it was the homeowner who shot the 14 year old, claiming self defense.

Under state’s felony murder rule, a defendant can be charged with murder if they were committing crime that could result in a “forseeable death.” The idea is that people understand certain crimes can turn deadly when they commit them, making them culpable if things go awry.

Marshan Allen is a project manager at Restore Justice, a nonprofit legal advocacy group. He said Illinois’ interpretation of felony murder law is among the broadest in the U.S.

The state follows “proximate cause theory,” Allen said, which allows for a complete disregard of whether the intent of a crime was for someone to die.

Allen himself was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder at age 15. He had stolen the car his two co-defendants drove the day they shot and killed two people in a drug dispute. Allen did not enter the apartment where the individuals were killed, he said, nor did he know the exchange would turn fatal.

Allen was originally sentenced to life without parole, which was later deemed unconstitutional for juveniles. All told, he spent more than 25 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections.

As lawmakers look to reform the felony murder rule, Allen said he’d like to see it repealed altogether –– or at least amended to prevent people from being held liable if they’re allegedly “proximate” to a shooting by a victim, police officer or bystander.

State Rep. Justin Slaughter, a Chicago Democrat, has filed legislation to amend the rule.

Nelson’s jury trial has been set for Sept. 9.