PENSACOLA, Fla. – The adult convictions of two baby-faced teenage boys for killing their father has rekindled efforts to change a Florida law that could have sent the brothers to prison for the rest of their lives.
Alex and Derek King, ages 13 and 14, were spared that fate when a jury Friday found them guilty of second-degree murder without a weapon.
The boys are facing 22 years to life without parole, but the judge is free to go below the minimum when they are sentenced Oct. 17. If they had been convicted of first-degree murder, as charged, they would have received mandatory life sentences without parole.
All the evidence indicated the boys either had committed premeditated first-degree murder by bludgeoning their father with a baseball bat, as the prosecution contended, or they were innocent because someone else was the real killer, as the defense argued.
A convicted child molester, Ricky Chavis, 40, also was tried for the crime but acquitted by a separate jury.
Yet the King brothers' jury came to a conclusion neither side had suggested.
The Rev. Thomas Masters, a leading opponent of prosecuting children as adults and death sentences for juveniles, said he thought the jury was sending a message to change the law.
"There's no way in the world you can receive a fair trial in an adult arena where you're looked upon as an adult when you have the mind of a child," said Masters, a pastor at New Macedonia Baptist Church in Riviera Beach.
Assistant State Attorney David Rimmer, who prosecuted the King brothers and Chavis, disagreed with Masters, saying he didn't believe the jury was thinking about the at all.
Rimmer said he thought the panel simply had given the boys a "jury pardon" by convicting them of the lesser offense.
The brothers were 12 and 13 when they killed their father, Terry King, on Nov. 26. Although charged with using an aluminum baseball bat, the jury found them guilty of committing the crime without a weapon.
Florida law gives prosecutors only two choices when children are charged with major crimes such as murder. They can be prosecuted as juveniles or adults, resulting in sentences some say are too lenient or too harsh. There is nothing in between.
Gov. Jeb Bush admits being uncomfortable with some adult prosecutions of children.
"I just don't think that in every instance 12-year-olds should be tried as adults," Bush said. "I do think prosecutors ought to have the flexibility to determine the jurisdiction, whether it's juvenile or adult."
Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, sponsored a bill earlier this year to create a middle ground between adult and juvenile prosecutions. It would give juveniles who are sentenced to life for first-degree murder a chance for parole after turning 21.
"We're not trying to be namby-pamby with everything, but at the same time we're trying to recognize that punishments should not be so harsh," Campbell said. "That doesn't accomplish anything."
Campbell's bill never received a hearing in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee chaired by Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, author of the present law.
"Now that it's finally being used, you're beginning to hear people complain about it," Crist said.
He said he might consider some changes, but not giving juveniles with mandatory life sentences a chance at parole.
"At 12 or 13 they are old enough to know better," Crist said. "If they have the potential to kill at that age, then that potential to kill will be even greater at an older age."
Crist's law sent Rebecca Falcon, now 20, to prison for life without parole for a murder someone else committed when she was 15, said her mother, Karen Kaneer, who attended the King boys' trial.
Falcon had gotten drunk and went out with two teenage boys, ages 14 and 18, Kaneer said. The older boy fatally shot a cab driver during a robbery in Panama City. Because her daughter was there and knew of his plans to commit the robbery she was convicted of first-degree felony murder, her mother said.
"To us it's overkill," Kaneer said. "I think there should be consequences, but they should be learning-type consequences, positive consequences."
She is joining with Masters, members of the King family and some of their friends to mount a renewed campaign to change the law.
"Charles Manson has been up for parole several times," said King family friend Pam Vaughn. "Yet these children, when they're convicted like that, their lives are over at 12 or 13 years old."
Masters, who also attended the King brothers' trial, become involved in the issue when one of his teenage congregation members was charged with murder as an adult.
Nathaniel Brazill was 13 in May 2000 when he fatally shot Lake Worth teacher Barry Grunow, claiming the gun went off accidentally. He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 28 years in prison.
Masters cited research by the Harvard University Medical Center that contradicts previous beliefs the brain is fully development by 14. Juveniles may lack the brain capacity to control impulses and make informed decisions, he said.
"That is why," Masters said, "it is so necessary and important that we continue to fight and say to the state of Florida `You've got to find a way to start prosecuting children as children."'