INDIANAPOLIS — A narrowly divided Indiana Supreme Court is warning lawmakers to fix a legal loophole before dozens of juveniles accused in adult court of serious and violent crimes could see their criminal cases overturned.
The problem stems from what the court calls a "jurisdictional gap" in the law that could be used as grounds to overturn and nullify cases of juveniles who have been waived into the adult court.
“We recognize this jurisdictional gap means certain delinquent acts will not be prosecuted — for no other reason than the delinquent act was not reported until the alleged offender turned 21,” Justice Geoffrey G. Slaughter wrote for the 3-2 majority in the 20-page State v. Neukam opinion filed June 23.
“We are not blind to the weighty and far-reaching policy concerns implicated by today’s decision.”
Upending juvenile justice
The court found that this “jurisdictional gap” means no court has the authority to prosecute or punish a juvenile who commits a crime once that person has a few birthdays and is no longer legally a juvenile.
“Criminal courts do not possess the jurisdiction to prosecute a child for delinquent acts,” said Joel Wieneke, senior staff attorney for the Indiana Public Defender Council.
“Even if they did, it would still be a delinquent act so you're not going to be looking at a prison sentence.”
Delinquent acts are not crimes
Juvenile courts are geared to rehabilitate rather than punish. The problem here stems from the state’s definition of a crime committed by a child as a delinquent act, which is different than an adult offense, Wieneke said.
The Supreme Court in this decision found that under current Indiana law a delinquent act does not automatically become an adult crime once a youth ages and becomes an adult.
"Under the governing statutes, a child’s delinquent act does not ripen into a crime when the child ages out of the juvenile system," Slaughter wrote. "The result is that neither the juvenile court nor the circuit court has jurisdiction here.
"In short, this case falls within a jurisdictional gap only the legislature can close."
Impacts Neukam and others
The decision centers on the case of Anthony Neukam, who is scheduled to go on trial in January in Dubois Circuit Court for child molesting, rape and sexual misconduct with a minor, records show.
Neukam was charged in 2017 with molesting a young girl before and after he was 18 years old. The high court ruled that the crimes Neukam allegedly committed as a juvenile can not be prosecuted under current state law.
The decision means Neukam won't be tried for some of his alleged crimes, but Wieneke said it also impacts all criminal cases of juveniles who are waived to the adult court by a judge.
There were 127 juvenile waiver cases filed in Indiana from 2018 to 2021, according to the most recent data available from the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute. These juveniles are accused of serious and violent crimes including murder, robbery, cocaine dealing and resisting law enforcement.
13 year old murder suspects
The pending cases of two 13-year-old boys accused of murder in Marion County could be directly impacted by this decision.
- One boy was charged in juvenile court with murder for allegedly shooting and killing Antonia Reiner, 69, on Oct. 10 inside her home in the 1200 block of Windsor Street.
- Another was charged in juvenile court with murder in the death of Cecelia O'Bryan, 77, who was found beaten and cut or stabbed to death in her west-side home on Feb. 11.
Prosecutors have asked judges to waive the cases of both 13-year-old murder suspects into the adult court. State law has to change to make that happen, under the new ruling.
The Neukam ruling does not impact “direct file” cases of 16- and 17-year-olds who under Indiana law are automatically considered adults when they are charged with certain serious and violent offenses, Wieneke said. Indiana courts saw 455 of those direct file cases filed from 2018 to 2021, according to the ICJI.
"Unjust and absurd"
Dissenting Justice Christopher M. Goff, disagreed with the ruling and its potential widespread impact on juvenile justice. In his dissenting opinion, Goff wrote that the majority's ruling was "both unjust and absurd.”
He wants to empower judges with the authority to decide if a juvenile's crime should ripen to an adult charge.
"In my view, a judicial officer, entrusted by their community to balance safety and fairness, should be empowered to make this difficult call," Goff wrote.
"The solution in this hypothetical is, I admit, an imperfect one. But it addresses the jurisdictional gap created by the court’s opinion, a jurisdictional gap that I do not believe the legislature could have intended."
Message to lawmakers
Marilyn Moores, the former Marion County juvenile court judge, said the Indiana Supreme Court has issued a warning to lawmakers in this decision, telling them in clear legal language that they need to rewrite the law before judges start overturning convictions and dismissing cases.
“I think it's a clear message to the legislature that this gap exists,” said Moores, who served as Marion County's juvenile court judge from 2005 to 2020. “And if you're unhappy with that, you need to fix it.”
Zach Osowski, spokesman for the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, said in an email that this legal loophole should be a high priority topic for a legislative study committee set to convene later this month. The issue is on the committee's agenda.
“After the Indiana Supreme Court ruling stating that neither adult courts nor juvenile courts have jurisdiction in these types of cases, it is clear a legislative fix is needed,” Osowski said.
Lawmakers will have a chance to act when they return to the Statehouse in 2023.
Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @vicryc.