Trial Begins for Minors Accused of Slaying

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On Thursday, the testimony began in the trial of two youth defendants who were charged with murder in a party-slaying at an apartment complex in the county in 2013.

Joseph Mario Varela, 17, who was 15 at that time, and Manuel Khiobouakham, 20, who was 19 at that time were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, following the shooting and death of Damien Wadell Toney Jr., 20. The shooting incident was prompted by a dispute, which other partygoers were able to witness.

According to some legal observers, the case, which will incorporate evidence of self-defense, has raised questions about the fairness of laws, allowing minors to be punished as adults. There are studies suggesting that children below a certain age, lack judgment, thus, should not face any possibility of life in jail.

Kathleen Pozzi, a public defender said the children aged 15 or 16 have not reached the full maturity level. Pozzi’s office is not involved in the ongoing trial. She added that the adolescent brain is still developing, taking risks and making mistakes, which a clearly developed mind would not do.

Meanwhile, a number of possible jurors were released from the panel after they have expressed their concerns regarding the trying of a minor. The same issue has been perceived to emerge in an unrelated case in the county, where in 3 other youths, all under the age of 18 are to be tried in the June 2014 killing of Nate Torres, 15, a sophomore high school student.

Prosecutors are also trying other minors who are accused of different crimes such as assaults and shootings under laws that permit treatment for such list of offenses.

The chief deputy district attorney Brian Staebell said half-dozen of these cases, including pending once are a coincidence, which does not indicate a shift in policy regarding the trying of minors as adults. He added that the office is conformist in reaching decisions, while considering factors like the crime’s sophistication, juvenile criminal history, and the previous efforts to alter behavior. He also said that the office looks at the entirety of circumstances in reaching the decisions.

In Thursday’s opening statement of prosecutor Chris Honigsberg, he did not mention the ages of the 2 accused suspects. Honigsberg said the victim began to yell gang slogans, which offended the 2 suspects who were both rival members of Toney’s gang.

The 3 got into a fight, and while the 2 defendants were armed, they shot Toney twice near the parking lot, killing the victim immediately. Varela allegedly bragged to a friend that he has to “discipline somebody”, a statement, according to Honigsberg carries a special meaning within the gang world. The prosecutor also described Valera as cold, not showing emotions about what happened.

Honigsberg told the jury, composed of 6 men and 6 women that the case is about discipline, disrespect, and lies. However, Valera’s attorney provided a different explanation, saying that the defendant is someone who just stood up to a bully.

Attorney Colin Cooper stated that when Varela and Toney reached the parking lot, Valera feared that Toney was going to pull a gun from his waistband, but Valera shot him in the chest instead as there was no other option. Cooper also claimed that Toney was out of control at that time, and he was always like that.

Meanwhile, Joe Stogner, lawyer of Khiobouakham said there was no solid evidence that Khiobouakham shot the same victim using another gun. However, 2 bullets were recovered from 2 different guns; the second gun was never discovered. Stogner also said that the statements of witnesses were unreliable.

The trial of the 2 accused suspects is expected to last for 14 days before Judge Rene Chouteau.

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