Juvenile waiver bill wisely shelved


POSTED: Wednesday, May 06, 2009

PUBLIC outrage about the rape and killing of a 51-year-old Ewa Beach woman and the arrest of a 15-year-old neighbor resulted in a plea to state legislators to make it easier to try juveniles for murder. Making such a change in the law in such an emotional climate would be unwise, and legislators prudently put the issue aside during the session nearing an end.

Karen Ertell was raped and strangled in her Ewa Beach home in May 2007. Not until last October did Family Court Senior Judge Frances Wong waive jurisdiction and order that Vernon Bartley, now 17, be tried as an adult.

A bill called “;Karen's Law”; would make a waiver mandatory for juveniles aged 15-17 charged with first-degree murder rather than at the discretion of a Family Court judge. First-degree murder most commonly is charged in cases of killing multiple people or a law-enforcement officer, but it also includes the killing of a witness; Ertell was scheduled to testify against Bartley in Family Court for allegedly burglarizing her home.

The Bartley case was delayed by a time-consuming psychiatric report. If he had been found commitable to a mental institution, he may have avoided trial. Consistent with the basis for the judge's eventual waiver, three mental-health experts agreed this week that Bartley is fit to stand trial, scheduled to begin next month.

Although the state Judiciary took no position on the bill, it clearly pointed out the lack of necessity. The Bartley case took a lengthy period to complete the waiver process because it “;dealt with complexities that required more than the usual time for waivers,”; testified Thomas R. Keller, the Hawaii courts' administrative director.

The Bartley case “;does not reflect the normal timetable for waiver cases,”; Keller told legislators. In 2007 and 2008, other waiver cases were completed between one and nine months, and the average time from the filing of the waiver petition to completion was less than four months.

“;Nearly all the petitions for the waiver of Family Court jurisdiction regarding minors charged with the offenses included in this bill have been granted,”; Keller said.

As expected, the city public defender and the American Civil Liberties Union testified against the bill. While not taking a position on the bill, the city prosecutor's office criticized it as potentially lengthening the time it takes to bring cases to court.

“;In terms of time, expense and effectiveness,”; wrote Deputy Prosecutor Lori Nishimura, “;the proposed provisions may actually create a worse situation than what presently exists.”;