As Juvenile Court magistrate Dan Michael read his decision, 14-year-old Jonathan Ray, the teen accused of setting a fire that killed his mother in their Hickory Hill home on April 5th, sunk his face into his hands. Minutes later, as guards escorted Ray back to the detention area, he crumpled to the floor, sobbing.
“He’s a child, and he cried like a child,” said Ray’s defense attorney, Rob Gowen. “He knows he’s facing 51 years.”
According to Michael’s decision, Ray, who has a history of depression and suicidal ideations and is currently taking antidepressant and antipsychotic medication, is unfit for rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system. Despite the pleas of his stepfather, grandparents, aunts, and cousins, who pledged to support Ray even as they were mourning the death of his mother, Gwendolyn Wallace, Michael’s decision was final: Following this transfer hearing on June 26th, Ray’s case was immediately bound over to adult court, where he will be tried for first-degree murder.
“We can’t wait six years to see if [Ray] is fit for rehabilitation,” Michael said in his decision. “We need to know now.”
Gowen said that throughout the proceedings in Juvenile Court, there was pressure to dispose of Ray’s case as quickly as possible. From Ray’s arrest to his final transfer hearing, Gowen had less than three months to prepare, a mere fraction of the prep time afforded an adult trial. But transfers come with serious, lifelong implications: When teens are transferred in Tennessee, they forever lose the right to be tried as juveniles, and studies show the recidivism rates for transferred juveniles are higher than those who stay in the juvenile system.
The breakneck speed with which transfer decisions are made, an attempt to lower the number of youths in detention, means a rush to determine amenability to rehabilitation, and that worries Sandra Simkins. Simkins is the due process monitor appointed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to oversee changes to the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County (JCMSC), following a two-year investigation in 2009, which revealed civil rights concerns, routine violations of due process protections, and transfer hearings set only two weeks after a child’s arrest.
“The rushed time frame [of transfers], added to the woefully low allocation of resources, challenges the integrity of the entire system,” said Simkins, in her June 6th progress report on JCMSC. “Fourteen days is not enough time for attorneys to obtain and review the necessary documents, evaluations, and investigation required to address factors such as the child’s suitability for additional treatment.”
In the end, it took only a total of 10 to 12 hours with Sidney Ornduff, the director of the division of clinical services at JCMSC, to seal Ray’s fate. The June 26th transfer hearing hinged entirely on the testimony of Ornduff, who used a personality test and interviews to determine that Ray was not amenable to treatment. “I think I have a pretty good feel for who this kid is,” she said. “His prognosis for change is very poor.”
Prosecutor Dan Byer and a police lieutenant exchanged fist bumps as they filed out of Ray’s transfer hearing. Byer believes transferring Ray will preserve valuable time and resources for youths more amenable to treatment. “A couple of years [of Ray] messing with people’s heads and then being released,” he said. “We took that option off the table.”
But Gowen thinks a lack of resources and a precedent of JCMSC avoiding cases deemed “too difficult” are more likely at play. “They don’t have the resources to deal with him,” Gowen said. “That’s why they want him out of there. Either you make the decision to invest in this kid or wash your hands of it and send it to adult court. The question is: Why have a Juvenile Court system?”
Ray is being held in pretrial detention at 201 Poplar, away from the general population. He is on suicide watch, naked in solitary confinement — a suicide prevention tactic known as the “buck naked cell.” He has no access to a therapist or psychiatrist.
“He’ll stay there until he’s no longer suicidal,” Gowen said. “As long as he’s telling them he wants to kill himself. Eventually, he’ll learn not to say anything.”