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CONWAY -- At 14 years old, Justin Staton can't legally drive without an adult, buy a beer or a pack of cigarettes, vote in the next election or get married.

Yet he is charged with a serious crime -- the slayings of the couple who raised him like a grandson, even after a genetic test in a child-support case revealed they were not related.

The July 21 shooting deaths of Robert and Patricia Cogdell of Conway left Justin without a guardian, without any adult assigned to make the decisions, from legal to medical ones, parents would normally make for a child his age.

For now, Justin's mother, Michelle Staton, 35, can't make those decisions: She was arrested the same day as Justin and remained Friday in the Faulkner County jail on drug-related and failure-to-appear charges.

On Feb. 11, 2010, when Justin was 9, a judge in Conway County Circuit Court in nearby Morrilton found Justin and two stepbrothers would have been "in imminent danger of irreparable harm" if they were placed back in their mother's home.

Justin's biological father can't help the boy, either. According to a 2010 guardianship record, the man's identity is "unknown."

On May 14, 2010, a Conway County circuit judge granted the Cogdells' request for permanent guardianship of Justin, allowing them "to take care of his financial, medical and daily needs."

The Cogdells' son, Robert Shane Cogdell, was living with his parents and Justin at the time of the killings. But court records do not indicate that he was ever the legal guardian of the boy, whose middle name is also Shane.

Just months before the killings, Michelle Staton's father, Randy Staton, filed an April court motion asking he be named Justin's "substitute guardian," replacing Robert and Patricia Cogdell. That case remains open.

Since Justin reached his teens, he has wanted to live with his biological family, the motion said.

"Before all this happened, I was going to" pursue the guardianship, Randy Staton said Friday. But now, he said, "I don't know."

Michelle Staton lives with her father in Conway. Police found Justin at their home hours after the Cogdells' bodies were discovered July 22.

Justin and 17-year-old Hunter Drexler of Clinton have both been charged with capital murder and other offenses in the slayings and have pleaded innocent. Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland has said he expects additional people to be charged.

Justin's public defender, Gina Reynolds, complained in Faulkner County Circuit Court last week Randy Staton had not been allowed to visit the boy in jail.

"My client really wants to see his maternal grandfather, and his maternal grandfather really wants to see him," Reynolds told Judge Troy Braswell.

Braswell suggested Reynolds discuss the matter with the sheriff's office.

The Faulkner County sheriff's office said it was checking into the visitation matter but didn't immediately respond further.

Robert Shane Cogdell said Friday he had not given any instructions preventing Randy Staton from visiting the boy.

Asked if he has any objections to such visits, he said, "I really don't."

Randy Staton said Friday he has not gotten to see Justin yet, however.

"I was just told I couldn't visit him," but was not given a reason, Staton said.

Reynolds declined comment Friday.

Connie Hickman-Tanner, juvenile-courts program director for Arkansas' Administrative Office of the Courts, said if children are charged as adults, "they're treated as an adult under our law. They're not treated as a juvenile."

As a result, the child can decide such matters for himself, she said.

The judge presiding over such a case also could decide who can and cannot visit the child in jail, she said.

In civil cases involving minors, it's common for the court to appoint an ad litem, a person designated to act on behalf of the child or other incapacitated person. But Hickman-Tanner said, "It would be very rare to appoint an ad litem in a criminal case.

"Normally, when kids don't have a guardian, [a] judge either appoints one, or they go into foster care," she said.

"Relatives could file petitions for guardianship," Hickman-Tanner said. But the judge presiding over a guardianship case would not be the same judge as in the criminal trial, she said.

"If it becomes an issue ... to have peace with the jail," the court may end up being asked to make such a decision, she said, commenting on such cases in general, rather than this specific case.

Likewise, Kate Luck, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, said, "In the most generally applicable terms, if the legal guardians have died, guardianship of the child would transfer to whomever has parental rights."

Otherwise, Luck said, such situations "would tend to vary."

"If the child was out of jail awaiting trial and he/she had no caretaker, it's very likely we could become involved and the child could be brought into foster care," she said in an email.

But she added: "If the child is still in jail, it's less likely we would become involved because we typically only become involved when 1. We become aware of the situation (due to someone calling the hotline, in most cases.) and 2. There is a threat of harm to the child. Without those two factors, it's unlikely [the Children and Family Services Division] would be involved."

NW News on 08/31/2015

Print Headline: Jailed boy in guardianship limbo

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