- Associated Press - Saturday, March 28, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The case of a teenager accused of beating his girlfriend to death when he was 14 has brought up a difficult question for a University of Utah social work class: What should happen to kids charged with violent crimes?

When the teenager’s defense attorneys asked associate professor Rob Butters to study whether he should be kept in the juvenile court system or tried as an adult, Butters made the task into a live case study for about 20 students studying for their master’s degrees in social work.

Student Braxton Dutson said he was torn as he read through police reports about the case. Prosecutors say that 15-year-old Anne Kasprzak’s boyfriend killed her and dumped her body in a river in 2012 after he heard she was pregnant, though it later turned out she made the story up.

“I would probably never feel there was any justice to it, because that person doesn’t get to come back,” 26-year-old Dutson said.

The Associated Press is not naming the defendant because he is a juvenile. He has not entered a plea in the case.

Student Amy Marx, 29, said the facts of the crime are brutal, but she got a different perspective on the case as she studied the defendant’s childhood and interviewed him. The class also examined his friends, schoolwork and past behavior.

“We have to look at this from the perspective of what if he did it, and if he did do it, what is fair and just?” Marx said.

For the handful of young people accused of serious crimes every year, a judge must decide before they go to trial whether they should be subject to adult prison if convicted. The decision is important, partly because offenders in the juvenile system are released at age 21. Since the defendant in the Kasprzak case is now 17, he would serve about three years if convicted.

The students helped prepare Butters to testify for the defense in a court hearing that ended earlier this month. He says new science shows that young people’s brains work differently and don’t have the kind of established neural pathways that help make good decisions. He testified that the teenager belongs in the juvenile court system, which is more focused on rehabilitating young offenders.

On the other side, prosecutors argued that a three-year sentence in a juvenile detention center wouldn’t be enough in the Kasprzak case. Prosecutor Patricia Cassell said in court that adult prisons are better equipped to deal with people who commit brutal crimes_and keep them from possibly doing it again, according to the Deseret News. Kasprzak’s mother has said publicly that she thinks the beating was an adult act, and the teenager should stand trial in adult court.

Judge Dane Nolan is now considering the arguments from both sides, and hasn’t yet set a deadline for his decision on whether the teenager will be tried as an adult.

The case comes as the national landscape shifts somewhat for juvenile offenders, said Carissa Hessick, a professor of law at the University of Utah. In the 1990s, state authorities began treating more young people accused of serious crimes like adults, including giving them longer sentences. Recent court decisions, though, have put limits on juvenile punishments, such as a U.S. Supreme Court case that banned mandatory life-in-prison sentences for juveniles.

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