Plan to imprison 9-year-old killer prompts outcry
Both sides back ouster of judge, who would reject boy's plea dealWhat's to become of a 9-year-old boy who pleaded guilty in connection with a murder?
That question has twisted the Apache County justice system in knots for nearly a year as attorneys, psychiatrists, victims, probation officers, a judge and residents of St. Johns consider the fate of Christian Romero.
What sentence would best serve the interests of justice, the community and the child? The query remains unanswered, compounded by small-town dynamics and financial obstacles.
In the past few weeks, those issues erupted in controversy at Apache County Juvenile Court.
First, Judge Michael Roca announced that he was going to reject a plea agreement that calls for probation, instead sentencing Christian to the state's Department of Juvenile Corrections.
Then, defense attorney Ron Wood filed a motion claiming Roca was swayed by local politics and should be removed from the case for bias.
Finally, prosecutor Michael Whiting joined the defense, arguing that Roca's decision to put the child behind bars was all about money, not justice.
At a hearing this afternoon, a Navajo County judge is expected to hear those arguments and make potentially crucial rulings on the future of the case and the defendant.
Legal conundrumOn Nov. 5, 2008, Christian - at the time an 8-year-old in third grade - came home from school, loaded his .22-caliber rifle and waited.
His father, Vince Romero, arrived at the residence a short time later and was shot multiple times on the stairwell. Then, Tim Romans, a family friend and housemate, was gunned down in the front yard.
Authorities struggled to grasp the horror of it all and to deal with such an immature and diminutive defendant.
The first major issue involved prosecution. Legal experts said no child Christian's age had been tried for murder in Arizona. If the boy had been charged as an adult, the case likely would have been dismissed because he would not have been competent to assist in his own defense.
Had he been charged as a juvenile, under Arizona law, the court would have lost all control once Christian turns 18, when he would walk away without parole conditions.
And if prosecutors had decided to wait until Christian was more mature, perhaps age 15, to file adult charges, the courts would have had no control or custody in the interim.
In February, Whiting worked out what appeared to be an acceptable compromise with the boy's attorney: Christian admitted to negligent homicide in the slaying of Romans, and charges involving his father's death were dropped.
As part of the plea agreement, the boy accepted intensive probation, community treatment and possible juvenile detention - but not state incarceration.
There was no trial, just a guilty plea accepted by the judge. And although the boy accepted probation, a specific sentence was not set, pending psychiatric evaluation.
For seven months since then, Christian has remained in legal limbo, his sentencing delayed by complications and conflicts. Simply put, Apache County either had no place to put him, not enough money to pay for his placement, or both.
Now, the plea deal itself is in jeopardy. Should it collapse, the case could start over with a decision on how to prosecute.
Courtroom playersThe list of courtroom players includes the judge, the prosecutor, the defense attorneys, Christian's mother, her lawyers, a guardian assigned to protect the boy's interests, and probation officers.
At least a half-dozen specialists, including a Harvard-trained expert, have evaluated Christian. Although their recommendations are sealed, the cost of housing and treating him has been estimated at up to $100,000 per year, a huge sum in the small, rural county.
Whiting, the prosecutor, said it was clear early on that treatment expenses would be a concern and that sentiments in the tight-knit community might influence justice.
"It gets into politics," he said. "It gets into money."
Last month, he asked to delay yet another sentencing because he had not found a way to pay for the boy's care.
Prohibitive costsAttorneys in the case say private treatment centers are prohibitively expensive. The regional mental-health authority has declined to take the boy. Even Arizona's juvenile-corrections system, which Roca now says is right for the boy, claims not to have a place for him.
Laura Dillingham, director of communications for the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, said last week that Arizona has not imprisoned an inmate younger than 13 for at least the past decade, if ever. She said the state could not take custody of Christian.
"There's too much of an age difference," Dillingham said. "We are not equipped to handle someone that young."
The cost of housing in juvenile corrections is nearly $39,000 per inmate, plus expenses for treatment and education.
Dillingham said youths enter the system because they are deemed incorrigible, and most are tough kids with numerous offenses. She said a 9-year-old with no criminal history would have to be isolated for his own protection, with a separate staff.
'Poison' and 'politics'After eight months of looking for an appropriate place to house Christian, Roca announced Oct. 22 that he intends to revoke the plea agreement.
The judge declared that St. Johns is "pure poison" for the boy, adding that it would be irresponsible to let him stay in town and that the juvenile-corrections system is best equipped to handle the boy.
"I don't see it as a money issue," Roca said. "I see it as an issue of not having a place to spend the money."
Whiting and Wood, opposing lawyers, said they were dumbfounded. Corrections officials made it clear they had nothing for Christian, yet the judge was planning to put the boy behind bars despite the plea deal he sanctioned.
"We all looked around: Is he being serious?" Whiting said.
Wood filed motions to remove Roca from the case or have charges thrown out entirely.
He argued that the judge demonstrated bias against Christian and made his comment about "poison" based on off-the-record conversations - he calls it "politics with a small 'p' " - rather than on court testimony or evidence.
Wood said St. Johns is hardly toxic for the boy, who has remained in town for the past year.
Both sides await today's hearing on whether Roca will remain on the case.
Meantime, Christian lives with his mother and paternal grandmother.
Michael Ellison, who represents the mother, said she just wants Christian to receive treatment and an education.