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Two teenagers were arrested in the death of 17-year-old Matthew Carter, Lafayette’s first reported homicide victim of 2020, and how the juveniles are handled in court hinges largely on their ages.

The 13- and 14-year-old boys were booked on counts of attempted first-degree murder, armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery on Jan. 18. The attempted murder counts were upgraded to first-degree murder after Carter died at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center on Wednesday.

Lafayette police found Carter seated inside a black Chevy Camaro suffering from a gunshot wound when they arrived on North Meyers Drive about 2:30 a.m. Jan. 18. Carter was treated for injuries at the scene and transported to Lourdes in critical condition.

In Louisiana, most offenders 17 and younger are considered juveniles and are processed through the juvenile justice system; however, the law still allows juveniles to be prosecuted in adult court for serious cases. Whether a juvenile can be transferred to adult court depends on the offense and the juvenile’s age at the time of the crime.

“The Children’s Code and the general juvenile court process really dictate what happens to the juvenile from the moment the juvenile is taken into custody until disposition,” District Attorney Keith Stutes said. “Whatever process or procedure the District Attorney’s Office is authorized to use is first determined by the age of the child at the time of the act. That’s quite a bit different than the process of prosecuting an adult.”

In the Carter case, the 13-year-old boy will be processed exclusively in juvenile court because offenders 13 and younger cannot be prosecuted as adults in Louisiana. However, the 14-year-old faces the possibility of prosecution in adult court if the judge assigned or the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office chooses to file a motion to seek a discretionary waiver in the case.

There are strict criteria applied to the waiver process, Stutes said. There must be probable cause the 14-year-old committed the crime and “clear and convincing proof … there is no substantial opportunity for the child’s rehabilitation” through care in juvenile facilities, treatment or juvenile rehabilitation programs.

The likelihood of juvenile rehabilitation is determined by considering the child’s age, sophistication and maturity, the ongoing danger to the community, prior acts of delinquency, past rehabilitation efforts and their results, whether the child’s behavior is linked to physical or mental problems, and whether juvenile programs exist to address the child’s needs and successfully rehabilitate, per the Louisiana Children’s Code, the collection of laws addressing juvenile justice.

Stutes said each case is different and the judge’s decision “totally depends on the circumstances, facts and the criteria.” There’s not a predetermined threshold for each criterion that determines if a child should stay in juvenile court or be tried as an adult.

The district attorney said he could not comment on the specifics of the prosecution in the Carter homicide or whether his office would seek a waiver in the case of the 14-year-old.

The court the child is placed in determines how much time behind bars the child may serve if found guilty or adjudicated. A first-degree murder conviction carries a life sentence without benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence. If adjudicated in juvenile court, the sentence would end at age 21. If convicted in adult court, the 14-year-old’s sentence would end at age 31.

Neither juvenile’s name was released in the case. Stutes said the names will not be released by officials because juvenile court carries more stringent privacy protections than adult court. Other privacy protections include hearings closed to the public, no public access to juvenile court records and trial by judge rather than a trial by jury, Stutes said.

A limited number of people are allowed in the courtroom during juvenile proceedings, typically the juvenile’s parents or guardians, the prosecutors, the juvenile’s attorney and necessary courtroom staff. The victim’s family members, depending on the charge, may also be present for the adjudication hearing, which is comparable to the trial, but even that access is limited, he said.

“There’s debate about why things are different. … Most often, the reason given is that juveniles are different, their brains are different, and the way we handle juveniles should be different than the way we handle adult court,” he said. “The process in juvenile court procedure has been evolving and continues to evolve.”

Before 2016 with the passage of the Raise the Age Act in Louisiana, which raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18, all 17-year-olds were considered adults for all offenses.

The first phase of Raise the Age, the transfer of 17-year-old nonviolent offenders to the juvenile justice system, took effect last year. Seventeen-year-olds accused of violent offenses will be considered in juvenile court after June 30.

Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com