The process is underway to decide whether two teenage defendants in the May 28 Walnut Street shooting in downtown Chattanooga, which wounded six other teens, will be tried in the adult criminal court system.
Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Robert Philyaw started the process with a hearing Thursday, which was closed to the public. The hearing came after Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston requested the cases be transferred to the criminal court.
Philyaw sat for an interview afterward with the Chattanooga Times Free Press and said he wants to ensure due process is followed before he rules.
"I want to make sure that it's done correctly, thoroughly with due consideration, and with zealous legal representation," Philyaw said.
The judge has transferred several such cases to adult courts before including:
* Jacob Allison, 16, was charged with three counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder for his role in the killings of three people in Lookout Valley in 2014. He pleaded guilty to two counts of accessory after the fact.
* Cortez Sims, 17, was charged in a 2015 shooting that left one woman dead and injured three others, including a 1-year-old who was left paralyzed from the chest down. Sims was sentenced to life in prison after jurors convicted him of first-degree murder in the shooting.
* Deuntray Kellogg, 17, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for fatally shooting a Chattanooga shop owner during a robbery in 2015. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
* Diontae Smartt, 17, was charged with raping a 69-year-old man on the North Shore in 2014. He was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2018.
"Young man, this is not the end of you," Philyaw told Smartt at the end of his hearing. "You're 17 years old and have a lot of life ahead of you."
Just before 11 p.m. on May 28, gunfire erupted in downtown Chattanooga near 100 Cherry St. and 100 Walnut St. between two groups of young people, injuring six teenagers. Police say the shooting appears to be a random act of violence among teenagers and cannot be attributed to gang violence.
Police arrested a 16-year-old and a 15-year-old in connection with the case. Their names were not released because they are minors.
The 15-year-old is charged with six counts of attempted murder, possession of a weapon during the commission of a dangerous felony, unlawful possession of a weapon and reckless endangerment. The 16-year-old is charged with six counts of attempted murder, unlawful possession of a firearm and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.
"The transfer hearing itself is kind of a two-step process," Philyaw said. "The first step is the state has to show enough proof that there's at least probable cause that the defendant committed the offense ... The next phase are all those other factors that look more specifically at the juvenile defendant, and it's the child's record in juvenile court if there is one, past treatment efforts that have been tried, his or her responses to those past treatment efforts."
A follow-up hearing will be July 28, when Philyaw will set a transfer hearing to decide if the cases against both teens should be transferred to the Hamilton County Criminal Court.
"If the case can't be resolved short of a hearing, which many times they are either by plea or some other way," Philyaw said, "then on July the 28th, I will set a (transfer) hearing (date)."
Pinkston offered no comment to reporters after Thursday's hearing. Chattanooga Public Defender Christian Coder, who represents one of the young men, wouldn't offer a comment either.
Philyaw attended a June 7 Lighthouse Collective Roundtable at Brainerd High School in response to recent youth violence in Chattanooga. He heard the youth ask for more parent involvement, and he mirrored their sentiments when it came to keeping young people out of the juvenile and adult criminal courts system. Philyaw added that most of the cases involving young people in violent cases often stem from neglect and abuse cases.
"Most of the children we see on our delinquency dockets, we've seen for years on our dependency and neglect dockets," Philyaw said. "Even from when they were little babies. You know, we have a lot of single-family, single-parent families. We have a lot of kids being raised by grandparents."
In his interview, Philyaw spoke about young people involved in criminal activities.
"A teenager's brain isn't fully developed, especially a frontal lobe that helps them deal with process decision-making and logic and reason, is certainly not fully developed until their mid-20s," Philyaw said. "Those teenagers certainly don't appreciate what some of their actions could mean long term. Just in its simplest form, for these teens that are carrying guns and pulling the trigger, they certainly don't appreciate what a bullet does to a human body."
Philyaw went on to say that his main message for young people from his nine years on the bench would be for them not to believe that because they are under 18, they would not suffer serious consequences for crimes committed.
"A lot of times it's something akin to, 'You're just a juvenile, nothing serious can happen to you,' 'You're just a juvenile, you're not going to get in a lot of trouble,' 'You're just a juvenile, you carry the gun in case we get caught, nothing is going to happen to you, but if I get caught with it, I'm going to go to prison,'" Philyaw said. "The message that I want parents to hear, that I want teenagers to hear — teenagers who might even think about any type of (criminal) activity or are running with that type of crowd — is that, of course, there are long-term consequences for your split-second decisions."
For Philyaw, it is important that young people understand and know there are some cases where underage people have been transferred to the adult court system, and it can happen to any case that meets the requirements set forth by the Title 37 of Tennessee Law.
Some of the requirements under Title 37 are that the juvenile is charged with a particularly serious offense, as well as past rehabilitation efforts for the juvenile have been unsuccessful.
"When I do transfer a child, they leave my courtroom and go into the custody of the sheriff, to Silverdale (Detention Center), and say they're 17, they get out and commit another offense, they don't come back here," Philyaw said. "They're treated as adults from then on, because I've waived jurisdiction over them. So that's kind of the end process."
Tennessee practices "once an adult, always an adult" law, meaning that if a young person is tried and convicted in the adult criminal court system, their records remain in that court. If the young person, however, is tried and acquitted in the adult system, any future case against that young person is heard at the juvenile court if they are still under 18.
According to Tennessee Code Sec. 37-1-134, charges of first- or second-degree murder or the attempt of first- or second-degree murder, have no specified age that a case can be transferred to adult criminal court. Additional cases that can be transferred to adult criminal court in Tennessee are rape, aggravated rape, aggravated or especially aggravated robbery, kidnapping and aggravated or especially aggravated kidnapping, according to the law.
"I'm all about third and fourth chances," Philyaw said. "I believe everybody can be rehabilitated, you know, generally speaking, but the court has to decide whether it's feasible and reasonable that that child can be rehabilitated — before my jurisdiction for that runs out."
Philyaw said another aspect that should be considered about how a criminal record will affect a young person on a long-term basis, is how this will potentially affect their chances at success.
"The difference is huge, juvenile system versus criminal justice system," Philyaw said. "As far as long term, think about starting your adult life at age 18 as a convicted felon. Having to disclose that on every job application, school application, lease application or whatever. It's a big, big — it's a big, big deal."
Philyaw added that some of the cases he has transferred over to the criminal court continue to have an impact on him.
"They haunt me a little bit," Philyaw said.