A teenager accused of gunning down his 16-year-old girlfriend and her sister before setting their Westchester apartment on fire in 2018 will not be tried as an adult, bringing an end to one of the most controversial cases of the early part of Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón’s time in office.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge J. Christopher Smith ruled Wednesday that prosecutors failed to prove the teen — whose identity The Times is withholding since he has been remanded to juvenile court — could not be rehabilitated within the confines of L.A. County’s juvenile justice system. Prosecutors sought to try the defendant — who was 17 years and 11 months old at the time of the killings — as an adult in the deaths of 16-year-old Sierra Brown and her sister Uniek Atkins.
Prosecutors initially sought to charge the defendant as an adult when he was arrested by Los Angeles police in 2018, but a transfer motion was not heard before then-Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey was ousted by Gascón in the 2020 election cycle.
On his first day in office, Gascón issued a blanket order banning the practice of trying juveniles as adults, no matter how heinous the crime. The policy was one of many that drew swift backlash against the reform-minded prosecutor, and Gascón told The Times in 2021 that he had “lost sleep” over the killings of Brown and Atkins and considered making an exception to his policy at the time. Ultimately, however, Gascón ordered his prosecutors to withdraw their transfer motion in the case.
Facing mounting pressure over his office’s handling of the controversial Hannah Tubbs case last year, Gascón created a committee that could approve prosecutors’ requests to seek to try juveniles in adult court in extreme cases. The case involving the killing of Atkins and Brown was the first to be approved by the committee.
As of late 2022, the committee had approved five total cases for transfer hearings, though the one involving Brown and Atkins’ murders is the only one to take place so far, according to documents the district attorney’s office provided in response to a public records request.
Late last month, L.A. County Deputy Dist. Atty. Courtney Dyer argued that the teen’s criminal conduct in the killings showed “sophistication,” noting he may have used a pillow as a silencer during the assault and set a fire to try to hide evidence. Dyer said the teen also arrived at the scene of the fire hours later and pretended to mourn the victims. He even gave false leads to detectives, she said.
Dyer said the teen had remained “stagnant” and showed no improvement in his behavior in the four years he had spent in the custody of the L.A. County Probation Department, and argued that the gravity of the crime committed was “incalculable.”
“Three parents have lost their daughters. Three children have lost their mothers,” Dyer said last month. “There is a 5-year-old who said she wanted to go to heaven to be with her mother.”
But defense attorney Janet Roh countered that the teen had shown marked improvement in custody, noting he was reading at a fourth-grade level at the time of his arrest and had been smoking marijuana on a daily basis from the age of 12. In custody, she said, the teen had responded well to services and education.
“Life in juvenile hall has been a drastically improved experience,” Roh said, pointing to physical abuse the teen suffered at the hands of his father at a young age.
An Assembly bill passed in 2022 made it much tougher to transfer juveniles to adult court. The bill requires prosecutors to prove “by clear and convincing evidence” that the juvenile would not be amenable to rehabilitation in juvenile custody.
Gascón filed a letter in support of the bill last year, which was written by Assemblywoman Mia Bonta (D-Alameda), the wife of California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta.
Prosecutors must meet five criteria to win a transfer motion hearing, and Smith ruled that the district attorney’s office had failed to meet three of them.
Chiding prosecutors that their repeated allusions to the “gruesome” nature of the crime were not enough to meet the standards of the law, Smith said prosecutors failed to “put forth any evidence” of what the teen’s rehabilitative needs were. Smith also noted that the teen had “cognitive abnormalities” in his frontal lobe and an IQ low enough to raise questions about his “intellectual function” when he was first taken into custody.
Although a probation officer wrote a report suggesting the teen should be tried as an adult, Smith noted the officer ignored the teen’s cognitive issues and alleged history of abuse in that report.
“Under the current state of the law, a minor should only be transferred under the rarest of circumstances. This is in line with a series of legislative changes which aims to treat children like children. The change in the law obviously increased the burden for us,” said Tiffiny Blacknell, the chief spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office. “We presented evidence that we believed met that burden. The court weighed the evidence and disagreed. We respect the court’s decision.”
An attorney for the victims’ families did not respond to a request for comment after the hearing. Two dozen of Brown’s and Atkins’ loved ones packed the tiny Inglewood courtroom where Smith delivered his ruling Wednesday, tearing up as he recounted the brutal nature of their deaths. Several left in frustration as it became apparent Smith would reject the prosecution’s motion to transfer.
Wednesday marked the end of a frustrating trip through the court system for the families, who first believed the case was over in 2021 when Gascón’s initial policy order led prosecutors to revoke their transfer motion.
As they exited, one man looked a Sheriff’s Department deputy in the eye and said the ruling was “bull—,” while others could be seen outside the courthouse later commiserating with deputies who were clearly frustrated with Smith.
“This was a waste of time and effort,” one relative said in court, with tears in his eyes.