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Judge decides on adult trial for Little Rock teen in slaying of mom

by John Lynch | March 5, 2021 at 6:42 a.m.
Great Seal of Arkansas in a court room in Washington County. Thursday, June 21, 2018,

A teenage murder suspect who prosecutors have suggested is a psychopath must stand trial as an adult, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen ruled Thursday, rejecting arguments by the 17-year-old's lawyers that he could be rehabilitated through the juvenile-justice system.

The decision was handed down exactly two weeks before Kaelon Duwon Presley of Little Rock turns 18. Charged with capital murder and evidence tampering, Presley was a 16-year-old 11th grader at Parkview Arts and Science High School in December 2019 when police say he admitted to fatally shooting his mother, Shondra Laney Miller, at the home they shared on Brush Creek Avenue in the Woodland Ridge subdivision between Geyer Springs and Hilaro Springs roads.

Miller's death was an isolated, impulsive incident that Presley deeply regrets, public defender Cheryl Barnard stated in court filings. But the teen is still an ideal candidate for the rehabilitative resources offered in juvenile court, she told the judge.

Presley has never been in trouble with the law before and has the education, intelligence and social skills to succeed in the juvenile system, Barnard said, arguing that if Presley is classified as an extended juvenile-justice offender, he would be in state custody until he turns 21, at which point a judge would determine whether he had been successful. An adverse ruling could put Presley in prison, possibly for life, she said.

Further, Presley has never shown a pattern of violence, and the best available testing to predict violent tendencies in teenagers shows that "Kaelon is a low risk for reoffending and has a high likelihood of rehabilitation," Barnard told the judge.

Society would best be served by allowing Presley the opportunity at redemption, she said.

"Although Kaelon admits to committing the offenses alleged, the protection of society does not require him to be prosecuted in adult circuit court. Kaelon's actions that day were an isolated incident and do not constitute a repetitive pattern of violence," Barnard stated in court filings. "The [prosecution] fails to present any evidence that Kaelon has ever been involved in a criminal investigation in the past or that society would require Kaelon to only be prosecuted in adult court as he has never been adjudicated in juvenile court."

Barnard urged the judge to reject prosecution efforts to paint Presley as a psychopath, pointing to the findings of a psychological examination that showed no justification for giving the teen such a label and that the doctor who performed the examination found no indication that Presley had the potential to be diagnosed with the antisocial personality disorder psychopathy. In juvenile court, authorities would further examine him to be certain, she said.

Arguing for the judge to keep the teen in adult court, deputy prosecutor Michael Wright disputed that he had tried to make Presley out to be a psychopath. Wright stated that he was actually pointing out that Presley has psychotic traits that were overlooked because psychological testing conducted for the defense was inadequate.

In written arguments to the judge, Wright described Miller's slaying as an execution deliberately carried out by her only child. That's reason enough to try him as an adult, the prosecutor argued.

"Evidence was presented at the hearing that Defendant shot his mother in the back of the head, killing her, after she said something to Defendant that made him mad, though he could not remember what she had said," Wright stated in court filings. "Again, the evidence presented at the hearing was that Defendant shot his mother in the head. He had a few days prior to the murder fired the gun, so, at best, he knew the firearm functioned properly and the consequences of pulling the trigger. At worst, he had intentionally test fired the weapon to ensure it functioned properly. Regardless, Defendant executed his mother as she sat on her couch playing on her phone. Not many offenses could be more aggressive, violent, premeditated, and willful."

Presley gave different accounts to different people about how his mother was killed, claiming that she had committed suicide at one point or that an intruder killed her while he was out of the house, Wright noted. The teen further claimed that she had been abusive then recanted that before admitting he had shot her, Wright said, invoking Presley's statement to detective Matt Harrelson in an interview the day she was killed.

"She had said something to me this morning that like really -- really like, made me mad. Like ... I do not remember but it made me very, very mad and I grabbed my -- I grabbed the gun and I just you know pointed it at her," Presley told the detective. "I didn't shoot it just right then and there, but I was just wiggling it around and I squeezed the trigger and I shot her."

The defense further failed to show specifically what the juvenile-justice system could do for Presley, the prosecutor said, noting that everything that Presley's lawyer says makes him a good candidate for rehabilitation, the teen also had before his arrest -- right up to the moment he killed his mother.

"The reality is there are no programs available in [juvenile court] to teach Defendant not to kill his family members. Defendant knew it was wrong to murder his mother when he did it, but that did not stop him," Wright stated in court filings. "The defense relies heavily on the argument that Defendant can be rehabilitated. Notably, no witness could articulate what specific therapy, counseling, or classes would rehabilitate Defendant."

Griffen's ruling Thursday was made about a month after a hearing in which the judge heard testimony about the evidence against the teen and the results of psychological testing done by defense doctors. The judge deferred his decision to give both sides time to submit written arguments.

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