Court hearings to determine whether an 18-year-old would have the chance at a more lenient sentence or remain treated as an adult in the shooting death of a Cherokee Trail High School student saw hours of emotional testimony, with tears shed in the audience and on the witness stand.
But the focus wasn’t whether Demarea Deshawn Mitchell was innocent. Instead, attorneys dueled over how accountable the teen should be considered in light of his traumatic upbringing and his age of 16 — weeks away from 17 — at the time of the crime, if he is eventually convicted.
“I think there’s kind of a crossroads here, where Demarea could go one way or the other,” Jessica Bartels, a psychologist who analyzed Mitchell, said in court July 2. With treatment and the proper incarceration environment, Mitchell could live a more conscientious life, she said.
But with the wrong influences, Mitchell also has potential “to become a more sophisticated criminal,” said Bartels, whose analysis assumed that Mitchell was guilty of involvement in the crime.
He’s one of the four teens suspected of driving to the home of Lloyd Alvin Chavez, 18, in east Centennial during what was planned as a robbery of vaping products Chavez sold, according to arrest affidavits. The May 2019 incident ended in Chavez’s death.
But defense attorney Dan McGarvey argued that because Mitchell would one day return to the community even if he is convicted, the public likely “would want to invest and make sure someone is rehabilitated.”
“Demarea has so much potential as a human being,” McGarvey told the court. “This is the kid who didn’t plan an aggravated robbery; this is the kid who didn’t bring a gun to a gathering of kids.”
Other suspects in the group are believed to have brought the weapon and planned to rob Chavez, according to court proceedings.
The U.S. Supreme Court has written that children are “constitutionally different” from adults in court “because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform,” McGarvey cited in court. He referred to a 2012 case where the court held that the Eighth Amendment forbids mandatory sentencing of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.
Mitchell’s two-day hearing, held June 19 and July 2, is known as a “reverse transfer” hearing; it decided whether Mitchell would be placed in juvenile proceedings, where he would have a chance at a more lenient sentence if convicted.
Ultimately, Judge Ben Leutwyler on July 14 denied the request to transfer the case to juvenile court.
McGarvey summed up an oft-repeated point in the hearing: “It is irrefutable that the human brain does not fully develop” until the mid-20s.
But Mitchell’s development wasn’t only defined by his age — he absorbed a life of trauma: experiencing homelessness, enduring the deaths of male role models around him and living with a mother who suffered abusive relationships, his defenders said.
“It was a struggle,” said Destiny Ousley, Mitchell’s mother, tearing up during testimony. “Homelessness, sleeping in cars, having to borrow money to feed my kids, a lot of domestic abuse. I kind of diverted to drinking a lot just to numb what I had to face every day, what I had to do and how to get by with my kids.”
Mitchell also grew up without a long-term father figure or male role model, watching a “trend in his life of men in his life getting incarcerated or dying,” including being murdered, McGarvey said. Mitchell also experienced child abuse, the attorney said.
All of that added up to different traumatic impacts such as symptoms of depression, tendencies related to bipolar disorder, difficulty controlling anger and impulsiveness, said Bartels, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Denver.
“Clinically, it seems that Demarea is likely suffering from what I call complex trauma,” Bartels said. As opposed to one traumatic experience, “trauma was part of his upbringing.”
Children with that experience can spend a lot of time in fight-or-flight mode, Bartels said.
The question was whether the court would feel that rehabilitation in a juvenile program would serve Mitchell better than adult prison — and how heavily it would weigh the goal of rehabilitation at all.
Bartels expressed concerns about placing Mitchell in the state Department of Corrections — rather than the state Division of Youth Services — where he could be susceptible to negative influences, and she worried he wouldn’t have access to needed therapy.
Kim Dvorchak, executive director of the National Association of Counsel for Children, also testified, saying research suggests that prosecuting young defendants as adults increases recidivism, or the tendency to commit crimes in the future.
Christopher Gallo, a prosecutor for the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, decried the juvenile system’s maximum of seven years for sentencing. Had Mitchell been only a year and a matter of weeks older, he would have been eligible for the death penalty, given the laws at the time, Gallo said.
More than half the people sentenced to the Division of Youth Services, over the course of three years, commit misdemeanor or felony offenses, Gallo said.
Mitchell would serve little time in that system because eligibility only lasts until age 21, Gallo said. The rest of his potential sentence would be on parole or in the Department of Corrections, Leutwyler, the judge, said.
The adult prison system wouldn’t be able to offer services at the same level, but the punishment for Mitchell the community deserves would not be provided by the youth system’s short sentences, Leutwyler argued. In the adult court process, Mitchell likely faces life in prison with possibility of parole at age 40, he added.
“Although the defendant (allegedly) did not bring the gun, he got out of the car with the gun, he confronted the victim with the gun and he got physical,” Leutwyler said before denying the request for juvenile court.
Mitchell is set for an Aug. 31 arraignment by videoconference.
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