Some details emerge after hearing in Poplar Bluff teen burning case

Friday, August 7, 2009

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- A Butler County judge will decide later this month whether a Poplar Bluff teenager should be tried as an adult for allegedly squirting gasoline on another teen and then lighting him on fire.

Associate Circuit Judge John Bloodworth heard testimony Wednesday afternoon from five witnesses presented by Dean Million on behalf of the Butler-Ripley County Juvenile Office.

Million presented evidence in regard to a June 13 incident that left Walter Currie Jr., 15, seriously burned and about what services are available through the juvenile office and Division of Youth Services for the juvenile suspect.

The 16-year-old suspect is charged with first-degree assault, which would be a Class A felony if he was charged as an adult.

The juvenile office recommended Bloodworth uphold its petition to allow prosecution under general law (as an adult).

After Million concluded his case, Danny Moore, who represents the suspect, did not call any witnesses, but asked for brief period of time to file a memorandum with the court.

Million asked for time to then prepare his response.

Bloodworth said he would take the case under advisement pending the filing of the briefs and will take "it under submission" on Aug. 19.

Million's first witness was Butler County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Barbour, who testified he received reports from the juvenile office about the incident, as well as discussed the matter with juvenile officials.

Barbour said he was willing to consider charging the teen if he is certified.

On cross-examination, Moore asked Barbour if he knew what charge would be filed.

Barbour said after reviewing the case, he would file whatever charge was appropriate.

Based on what he has read, Barbour said, the charge would probably be a Class A felony of first-degree assault, but there are some circumstances that need to be looked at.

"There are witnesses in here (the file) that have not been interviewed," Barbour said. "In a case of this serious nature, there were other witnesses accompanying the victim that have not been interviewed."

Barbour said he would be "comfortable" filing charges now, but he would be "more comfortable if certain information is nailed down."

Moore asked if Barbour had considered self defense as a defense and whether he was aware of three separate incidents where the suspect went to authorities asking for help in regard to Currie.

"I'm aware of that," Barbour said. "That's why I would like the other people interviewed."

Moore said his client had problems with the victim and the victim's brother at Bacon Park where an assault occurred.

"I'm not sure it's a clear case of self defense; it might mitigate it," Barbour said. "It's something for a jury to consider."

Shonda Hill, chief deputy juvenile officer, confirmed juvenile officers received reports from law enforcement personnel and were present when the suspect was told of his rights before he was questioned.

Juvenile officers, she said, received one referral about the suspect in August 2008 for affray.

"Nothing was filed; the incident involved him and a friend," Hill said. "There wasn't enough evidence to pursue. No action was taken."

As part of the investigation, Hill said, school records also were reviewed.

Million asked if the records contained a pattern of misbehavior in school.

During the past school year, Hill said, the teen suspect had no discipline referrals. She said he did have a 10-day suspension in eighth grade for an incident between him and his teacher.

Hill said she didn't know the circumstances of the incident, which was not referred to juvenile authorities.

The teen, she said, also didn't have any attendance issues during the past school year in which he earned two As, two Bs and three Cs and was enrolled in the Junior ROTC program.

The suspect, Hill said, will turn 17 in November. Supervision of juveniles ends at age 17 and Division of Youth Services' supervision ends at 18, she said.

Since the teen turns 17 in November, Hill said, juvenile officials didn't believe there was sufficient time to rehabilitate him through the juvenile system.

Hill said she knew of only four other instances involving serious crimes, including a robbery, when the juvenile office asked for someone to be certified as an adult.

"We're very hesitant, but sometimes the charge makes it mandatory," as it did in this case, Hill said.

Race, she said, was not a factor when it was decided to file charges or seek certification.

On cross-examination Moore asked who decided to file the assault charge.

Hill said herself, Chief Juvenile Officer Lesi Smith and Deputy Juvenile Officer Robbie Hale.

Moore asked how many witnesses have not been interviewed at this point.

"There may be a couple of witnesses who have not been interviewed," Hill said.

Moore also questioned whether juvenile officers had considered a defense of self defense and whether it would have changed the charge.

"At the time we were not aware of the evidence," Hill said. " ... I think we would have proceeded the same way."

Hill confirmed they made their decisions without knowing the suspect had made three reports to law enforcement and school officials about Currie allegedly threatening him or his younger brother.

Mark Henson, attendance officer for the Poplar Bluff School District, said the suspect enrolled locally in March 2007 and passed all his courses, completing his seventh grade year here.

The teen, he said, had attended school at Puxico prior to enrolling here.

In ninth grade, Henson said, the teen passed all his courses, earning two As, two Bs and three Cs.

His ROTC grade, Henson said, was a "straight A."

In the 2008-2009 school year, Henson said, the teen had no referrals to the office.

Steven Hardin with the Division of Youth Services also testified as to the programs and services available for juvenile offenders.

Million's final witness was Winonia Currie, who testified her son suffered second- and third-degree burns on his stomach, chest, face, neck and arms after he was "doused with gas and set on fire."

After being treated locally, Winonia Currie said, her son was taken by ambulance St. John's Mercy Medical Center.

"He was in St. Louis for nine days," she said.

Her son's treatment included a skin graft, she said. " ... He was bandaged from the bottom of his stomach" up to his head, she said.

Winonia Currie said she and her husband, Walter Currie Sr., initially had to take their son to St. Louis weekly and those trips continue so he can see a burn specialist and get therapy.

Over the next two years, she said, her son could possibly need 12 more skin grafts.

In addition to the care he receives, Winonia Currie said, her son will have to wear a "burn vest" 23 hours a day. The vest, she said, has been ordered and is being made specially for him.

Winonia Currie said the vest is worn to keep the scars from whelping up. "The more whelps, the more surgeries he'll have to have," she said.

Winonia Currie confirmed her son did not want to make a statement during the hearing, but had provided a written statement.

Moore objected to it being admitted as evidence since he would not have a chance to cross examination Currie, which he believed he had a right to do if Currie made a statement.

Bloodworth admitted the statement over Moore's objection.

Michael Pritchett, who was representing Currie, asked Winonia Currie how her son's life has changed.

"He can't ... he doesn't want to be left alone," she said.

Winonia Currie said her son also hears noises now. "It's just been hard on him ... the pain he's going through and the emotional state, also," she said.

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