A Young Killer’s Second Chance

He shot and killed a mother and daughter when he was three months shy of his sixteenth birthday. Four years later, he's a free man.
Published: Jul. 21, 2020 at 1:38 PM AKDT
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The June 5, 2016 shooting deaths of Shannon Duke, 40, and her 18-year-old daughter, Chloe, shocked the South Anchorage neighborhood where they lived. By the time police caught up with the suspect, he'd fled toward the community of Big Lake in Mrs. Duke's vehicle. They found a very young child in the car with the 15-year-old, who according to court testimony may have been fleeing to seek refuge at a cabin he'd been to before.

It was not a random crime. Investigators said at the time that the teen knew the family and had been living with them.

That teenage boy is now a 20-year-old free man, a birthday that would prove to be a final turning point in the tug-and-pull over whether he could be tried as an adult.

KTUU is not naming the defendant, because his case was settled in juvenile proceedings, which are confidential. In a rare event, an adjudication hearing held July 20th was opened to the public at the request of prosecutors, who'd earlier this year lost a final attempt to have the teen tried as an adult. Superior Court Judge Kevin Saxby approved the request but ordered news stations to refrain from filming or broadcasting the defendant.

The case offers a glimpse into the world of juvenile justice, the slow pace at which court cases can seem to proceed, and the lasting impact of violent crimes on young offenders and their victims' families. Large questions loom when young lives are in the court's hands, including balancing the prospects for rehabilitation with community safety and justice for those they hurt.

After the defendant admitted to the allegations, Judge Saxby found him to be a juvenile delinquent for crimes that would in adult court have been tried as two first degree murders and vehicle theft, crimes the judge himself had once described as "deliberate and callous."

In many ways, the hearing was procedural, a way to officially bring to an end what had already functionally ended in March.

"Because he's over 20, and because the state cannot try him as an adult, then the court has no jurisdiction to do anything to submit him to anything. All of his decisions now are going to be made without supervision by the court or by the state," prosecutor Patrick McKay told the court as he went through the history of the case.

Asked after the hearing why he pushed to have the proceeding open to the public, McKay told KTUU via email that "the State believes the public has a right to know about serious crimes and their resolutions, despite the age of the offender."

“There is public good in transparency. Opening a hearing like this balances the rights of maintaining confidentiality in juvenile proceedings with the public’s right to know, as it impacts public safety.” McKay said in the email.

During the hearing, McKay chronicled a four-year timeline that began with the murders and the defendant's custody as a youth offender at McLaughlin Youth Center. Serious offenders who are 16 years or older are automatically waived into adult court for crimes such as those detailed here. But offenders fifteen and under are only eligible for adult proceedings under a discretionary waiver, meaning the state has to seek prosecution in adult court, hearings are held on that question and then a judge decides.

Here, a first waiver hearing took place on February 2, 2017 - more than a year after the youth's arrest. In August that same year, the judge ruled in favor of the waiver, meaning the case would move to adult court. Although the defense appealed within one month, it would take the appeals court until July 2, 2019, to ask the Alaska Supreme Court to take up the matter. On January 24, 2020, the high court sent the case back to the trial courts, and one month later, on February, 26th, 2020, the superior court began the second round of waiver hearings to determine whether the defendant -- who was about to turn 20 -- should be tried as a juvenile or an adult.

By this second waiver hearing, the defendant had shown enough progress toward rehabilitation that Judge Saxby denied the state's petition to move the case to adult court. Same crimes. Same circumstances. But this time around the defendant had racked up dozens of sessions with a psychologist, had the support of his family, and showed diligence at working on turning things around, according to court testimony.

Judge Saxby's ruling came March 19, just days before the youth offender was to turn 20.

According to McKay's timeline, the once-troubled teen who'd committed execution-style murders was released the next day.

At age 20, the juvenile system has no jurisdiction or authority over its offenders at the conclusion of their case.

At Monday's hearing, the defendant answered the judge's questions but declined to speak freely when given the opportunity. His attorney, John Bernitz, described his client as "an amazing success story," who has strong family ties, a job, and is someone who "has to make up for what he can, for what he did for the rest of his life."

"He absolutely will do that," Bernitz said.

"But the idea that you should throw people away because of the horrible--, of the crimes that they've done when they did them as a kid is something that is an anathema to us and anathema to the state of Alaska. What we do is protect our kids. And that's exactly what happened here," Bernitz said.

In a heartfelt letter written to the court, Shannon Duke's sister referred to the defendant as a "cold-blooded killer," and expressed skepticism at the idea he'd turned his life around.

“I don’t feel that you have been rehabilitated,” Kristina Ciccone wrote in a letter read out loud during the hearing by someone from the Office of Victim’s Rights. “You are smart enough to say what the psychologist and judge want to hear. If you can murder two people, really not show any remorse, then it is only a matter of time before you do something horrible again.”

Ciccone struck at which system of justice is best - juvenile or adult - for a youth offender who displays extreme, unprovoked violence.

"There was never a time that my sister Shannon, or Chloe, were ever given justice. These two were murdered, and for some reason that has been a side note in all of these hearings," Ciccone wrote.

It's a point underscored by the prosecutor, who told the judge the case's resolution "means that he [the defendant] will spend about four years in a juvenile detention facility and for these two murders, and the law does not allow the court to impose any sort of probation or any sort of supervision over him."

"I think the state is implying that the law is wrong. But they are dead wrong in that," Bernitz said as the hearing drew to a close.

“He [the defendant] was as a 15-year-old. His brain wasn’t developed. He was at risk. He didn’t understand the consequences of actions. We’ve all been there. He also had incredible potential to grow out of this. So the idea that we treat our children differently under the law is one that I will stand here and defend any day of the week,” Bernitz said.

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