The future of a Bryant teenager implicated by police in two Little Rock shootings -- one the execution-style slaying of a man at a carnival, the other in which the teen's 17-year-old cousin was wounded by another man -- is in the hands of a judge preparing to decide whether the teen should face his charges as a man or boy.
If Pulaski County Circuit Judge Cathi Compton determines Keaton Jamal McGee should be tried as an adult, he faces capital murder charges in her court. If Compton decides he should be considered a minor, McGee, who turns 18 in about six weeks, will be prosecuted in juvenile court as an Extended Juvenile Justice offender, which would give him the chance to avoid the stigma of having a murder conviction made publicly known.
Either way, decades of prison is a possibility if McGee is convicted, given that such juvenile offenders are required to undergo an evaluation process by age 21 before a judge to determine rehabilitation.
Failure at rehabilitation opens the offender to adult penalties like probation and prison, with juveniles convicted of capital murder or first-degree murder facing at least three years of mandatory probation, with the possibility of prison, once they reach adulthood.
McGee's future was the subject of a four-hour hearing Thursday as his attorney, Megan Wilson, attempted to persuade the judge to override prosecutors' decision to try the teen as an adult, where he could face a life sentence with parole after 30 years. The judge said she will decide where McGee, now jailed in Saline County, stands trial in the coming days.
"Give him a chance to be rehabilitated," Wilson said. The system "failed him," she told the judge.
Wilson has derided the capital-murder case against McGee as completely circumstantial. There are no witnesses or video that show McGee at the April 2021 carnival by the Outlets of Little Rock mall and Bass Pro Shops.
The only witness to the shooting described and chased after a much larger man as the gunman, Wilson told the judge. Detectives have no motive for the slaying and have no evidence that McGee and the victim ever met before.
Deante Deshawn Smith, 22, of Forrest City was fatally shot while waiting with his sister, girlfriend and some children to get on a ride, according to authorities.
Police identified McGee as the killer based on clothing descriptions, arresting him while he was wearing a puffy jacket like the killer was seen wearing after finding McGee in close proximity to the pistol investigators believe to be the murder weapon.
In the request that the judge transfer the charges to juvenile court, the defense acknowledged that McGee has been under the supervision of juvenile justice authorities almost continuously since he was 11.
Wilson, McGee's attorney, said her client's offenses were "common" ones typically committed by children, like vandalizing a car, fighting in school, breaking into a concession stand to steal snacks and possession of a stolen gun. None of those offenses involved violence, she told the judge.
McGee has repeatedly demonstrated potential for redemption in the juvenile system, Wilson pointed out, noting that authorities recognized his potential by reducing the conditions of his punishment in one case, while in another instance enrolling him in the exclusive C-Step boot-camp program, which is allowed only for the most promising teenage participants.
When McGee has failed, it's because the system has failed him, Wilson told the judge. When he was incarcerated in the Division of Youth Services, he was sexually abused by one staff member and physically abused by another at different facilities, both times causing him to run away, once from Mansfield, the other in Alexander, Wilson said.
"Once he was in a facility he wasn't being abused, he did great," she said. "There is still plenty of time to rehabilitate Mr. McGee and get him the therapy he so desperately needs."
His escapes resulted in more sanctions for McGee, but investigations into those facilities led to firings and some facilities being shut down, she said. The whole time McGee was locked up in Youth Services, his mother had to regularly fight with his medical providers -- a company that was later dropped by officials -- to make sure he was receiving the proper medical treatment, Wilson told the judge.
His older brother died shortly after McGee was released from Youth Services in January 2020, which traumatized the then 15-year-old McGee. He was never provided therapy by juvenile justice authorities, although he qualified for those services, Wilson told the judge.
According to police reports, the March 2020 death of Tyler Deshawn Ashford was classified as a suicide after the discovery of the body of the 19-year-old father of one with a gunshot to the head and a 9mm pistol in his right hand in some North Little Rock woods on Maumelle Curve Court north of Maumelle Boulevard.
It's a finding his family has disputed. At the time, Ashford faced attempted capital murder and drug charges over allegations he had exchanged gunfire with a Little Rock police officer in February 2019.
McGee did not testify Thursday and his lawyer called no relatives or friends to speak on his behalf. His mother, 41-year-old Tiffany Patton of Bryant, attended the proceeding but was not called to testify after having disrupted court by yelling and screaming at a hearing last year when the judge set McGee's bail at $1 million.
Deputy prosecutor Jayme Butts-Hall called on the judge to keep McGee in adult court, saying evidence shows McGee failed in the juvenile system because he didn't really try to succeed. A juvenile screening shows him to be at high-risk for offending, the prosecutor told the judge. Further, McGee has gone on to commit crimes in two counties since his release from juvenile custody, three of those involving guns, with two of those involving violence.
In Saline County, McGee faces five counts of breaking or entering involving car break-ins in Benton in November 2020. He further faces drug and gun charges from a March 2021 traffic-stop arrest on the Interstate 30 West service road near the north service loop in Alexander. McGee, then 16, and two other minors were passengers in the vehicle, with police finding 11.6 ounces of marijuana and two rifle-style pistols.
Arguing for the judge to order McGee tried as an adult, Butts-Hall told the judge the teen is accused of "the most vicious crime in our society" which would have put him at risk of facing the death penalty if he were older. The carnival killing was an execution, "cold and calculated," with evidence showing that McGee, flanked by two unknown men, arrived at the fair, marched up to the victim, shot him once in the head and ran, the prosecutor said.
Hundreds could have been hurt in the aftermath because the shooting sparked a panic that saw patrons run from the carnival and flee the shopping center, she told the judge.
"Not only did he shoot him, he shot him in front of his family, his children and everybody at that carnival," Butts-Hall told the judge. "There was a risk of injury to everyone there that day. They all suffered trauma that day."
The prosecutor further introduced the testimony of Little Rock homicide detective Stephen Henry, who said local authorities suspect McGee of gang membership, telling the judge McGee is known to associate with members of a Bloods gang subset, the Cain Gang. Henry said the gang is one of three subsets of the Monroe Street Hustlers, who are led by a man known on the street as Mucho Reemo. The other sets are Ring Ding and Neighborhood Rolling 20s, Henry testified.
Henry led the investigation into the February 2021 gunfire that wounded McGee's cousin and led to the arrest of McGee and five other defendants, , all between the ages of 16 and 18. Henry told the judge that McGee's cousin and another girl met up at the Otter Creek Homeowners Association clubhouse at 14000 Otter Creek Parkway to settle a dispute with a fistfight.
As a crowd alerted by social media watched, the fight began but was broken up when McGee and the others started shooting, with Henry telling the judge that someone else in McGee's group fired the first shot.
"He was one of the ones who started shooting after the initial shooting," Henry said, describing how McGee was charged based on witness identification, statements made by at least one co-defendant and video surveillance.
An older man, Yahman Toney, 19, of Little Rock was identified as the gunman who wounded the girl and he's been charged with first-degree battery and possession of a firearm by a felon.
One of McGee's co-defendants in that case was Davyon Lashun Roberts of Little Rock, who was 17 at the time of the shooting. Roberts' aggravated assault case was transferred to juvenile court in September over the objections of prosecutors who wanted him tried as an adult.
Since then, he's been charged with five counts of committing a terroristic act, accused of participating in a July shootout with a neighbor, who is similarly charged.
In December, the investigation into a triple shooting that killed two men and wounded a third, all brought to Baptist Hospital in a stolen car about a week before Christmas, led to Roberts' arrest by federal agents on a machine-gun charge.
According to federal court filings, police found Roberts with a "Glock switch," a device used to convert a semi-automatic pistol to full automatic, shortly after he had been at the Bryant home of McGee and his mother, federal court filings show. He is now in custody under federal indictment on a machine-gun possession charge.
The investigation into the December shootings further led to Roberts' arrest on two counts of capital murder in the slayings of 19-year-old Kenneth West and Justice Moore, 20, plus first-degree battery involving the shooting of survivor Markeith Wilson, 21.