HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: It’s always good to have in-house counsel. I am married to a defense attorney--you know that—and whenever I hit a legal question in my books, I run to wherever Jonathan is and get the scoop. I need a guy in custody for eight hours, with no warrant, I say. How can I do that? Jargon, procedure, sentencing, laws, process—all available here in my living room! Good thing, because the rules are complicated, and unique, and very specific.
(And you know Jonathan does a lot of defense work with juveniles—he’s the model for a defense attorney character in the brilliant Defending Jacob—you know that, too, right?)
So when Nancy Allen –a former prosecutor—wanted to chat about juvenile justice, I figured she could be the Reds’ in house counsel today! Legal questions in your book—especially from the prosecutor’s point of view? Bring ‘em on. And juvenile justice—that’s such a critical topic.
Prosecuting a Juvenile in A Killing at the Creek
By Nancy Allen
In A Killing at the Creek, my new Ozarks Mystery, I knew my main character, prosecutor Elsie Arnold, was ready for a murder case. So in my new book, Elsie has been handed her first homicide, prosecuting Tanner Monroe, a 15-year-old boy, for murder in the first degree. He has been certified to stand trial as an adult for cutting a woman's throat and dumping the body in Muddy Creek in the Ozarks hill country.
Elsie has her first murder case. But it’s not the case she wants. No one has successfully prosecuted a fifteen-year-old juvenile of murder in McCown County, Mo.
Why did I choose to accuse a child of tender years of such a horrific crime in my legal thriller? Why did I create a character as dark as Tanner Monroe? Well, it's not because I hate young people, honest to god. Really--I like teenagers! Crazy about them! I'm a faculty member at Missouri State University; I have a teenage daughter; I'm surrounded by teens. They're wonderful.
But when a person of tender years is involved in, or accused of, a terrible crime, it raises fascinating questions. Did they actually do it? How could they be so cold-blooded at such a young age? Why would they do such a thing? Were they framed? Are they insane? And in recent years, we hear so many reports of juveniles being certified to stand trial as adults for homicides. I thought it was timely topic, and intriguing. These are some ofthe reasons I was eager to delve into the issue in A Killing at the Creek.
Plus--I have the background to write it. In my career, I served as prosecutor in the Ozarks, and one of my cases involved a similar scenario. I tried and convicted a sixteen-year-old boy for the crime of first degree murder.
That case served as the inspiration for A Killing at the Creek. I must stress: my book is a novel, it’s fiction; all characters are solely the product of my imagination; the defendant, plotline and story arc are not a repetition of that real life prosecution. But the case provided the seed for me to craft my story, and gave me the professional experience to write a courtroom novel that rings true.
But major changes have occurred in society—and our legal system--since I tried that murder case. In past decades, every state had an absolute age under which a juvenile was guaranteed protection by the juvenile system--generally 14 or 15. Only those in their mid-teens had the possibility of being certified to stand trial as an adult.
However, in the wake of schools shootings, like the tragic incidents at Columbine and Jonesboro, Arkansas, many states moved to dissolve the protection. In my home state of Missouri, protective limits all but disappeared. At this time, anyone who is 17 is an adult under the Missouri Criminal Code; and “at any age” a child who has committed a “serious crime” in Missouri can be prosecuted as an adult.
That’s not all. When an individual is convicted of 1st degree murder in Missouri, there are only 2 possible penalties: death, or life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Our state statutes make only the following provision for juveniles committed of Murder in the 1st. If they’re under 16, they will not receive the death penalty.
So in Missouri, our state law provides that people who are 16-18 can be executed; and all of those who receive the penalty of life imprisonment, will never have possibility of parole. They will live out their lives in prison.
Our state law in Missouri is in direct violation of recent decisions of the United State Supreme Court, declaring statutes that mirror the Missouri law unconstitutional. But our state legislature won’t budge. They say they’re taking a “wait & see” approach.
Increasingly, state legislatures and law enforcement are taking a “get tough” stance on juvenile crime. In Missouri—as in many other states—crimes committed by children are being handled in the criminal courts, rather than juvenile jurisdiction. What do you think of this trend? Do you think that children and teens who commit serious crimes should face adult responsibility, or not?
HANK: I think juveniles’ brains are not fully formed. They’re NOT adults. And if they do something terrible, it’s completely different. Just my opinion. Well, no, actually. It’s science. And now, Reds, your turn.
Nancy Allen, an attorney, is a member of the law faculty in the College of Business at Missouri State University. After receiving her undergraduate degree in English from Missouri State University, she entered law school, and received her Juris Doctor from the University of Missouri School of Law. Nancy practiced for fifteen years, serving as Assistant Missouri Attorney General and as Assistant Prosecutor in her native Ozarks.
When Nancy began her term as prosecutor in Greene County, Missouri, she was the sole female on the staff of attorneys; moreover, she was the second woman in all of Southwest Missouri to serve in that capacity. Upon taking her position, she was assigned an unprecedented number of sex cases, including offenses perpetrated against children, and became the leading sex crimes lawyer in the office. In her years in prosecution, she tried over thirty jury trials, including murder, rape, and incest. During that time, she served on the Rape Crisis Board and the Child Protection Team of the Child Advocacy Council.
Nancy continues to demonstrate her commitment to victims of sexual crime. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Victim Center, an agency which provides free counseling, crisis intervention, and advocacy services for children and adults who are victims of violent and sexual crime in Southwest Missouri.
Her first novel, a legal thriller entitled The Code of the Hills, was released by HarperCollins in 2014. The second book in the series, A Killing at the Creek, was released by HarperCollins in February of 2015.
Nancy lives in Southwest Missouri with her husband and two children.