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It's Your Court: How old is he?

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The surveillance video showed how the tragedy played out. On the evening of Jan. 6, 2010, two men wearing masks entered the Seward Market in South Minneapolis. One of the men pulled a gun, directed everyone in the store to lie on the floor and demanded money from the clerk.

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Another customer then entered the store, disrupting the robbery. Shots were fired and moments later the two men fled from the scene. When the police arrived they found three men dead.

A headline a few days later read, “Two teens charged with murder in triple homicide.” The incident was described as a “tragic, senseless shooting” and as a “robbery gone bad.” The two men, both allegedly age 17, were held on $3 million bail and each was charged with first-degree murder, which calls for a sentence of life in prison.

Under Minnesota law, when a juvenile age 16 or 17 is charged with murder in the first degree, the case would be heard in district court and the youth would be prosecuted as an adult. If the youth is under age 16 the case would start, although it might not stay, in juvenile court.

In this case the alleged shooter wanted the case to be heard in juvenile court and claimed he was only 15 years old at the time of the offense. The state claimed the alleged shooter was at least 16 and that he accordingly should be prosecuted as an adult.

It might seem strange to you that a person’s age could be disputed. Most of us are born in hospitals, and there are birth records, witnesses, photographs and sometimes video footage to firmly establish our date of birth. But this documentation does not exist for everyone.

In the case discussed above, Judge Pete Cahill held an evidentiary hearing regarding the age of the alleged shooter that lasted over three days. The mother testified that her son was born Aug. 25, 1994, making him only 15 at the time of the offense. She had earlier represented, however, that she was the defendant’s grandmother and had on numerous occasions represented that his date of birth was Jan. 1, 1993.

She also testified that it was permissible to lie if it is in the best interests of the family. Judge Cahill also heard testimony from friends of the defendant, from a social worker who had worked with the family, and from investigators who had taken statements from the defendant. Each time the defendant was interviewed he gave his date of birth as Jan. 1, 1993.

As you “CSI” fans might expect, Judge Cahill also heard some expert testimony. Two board certified forensic odontologists gave their opinions regarding the probable age of the defendant. The doctors explained that a person’s age can be reliably estimated by examining third molar development, and both doctors opined that the defendant was likely over 16 at the time of the offense.

Judge Cahill ruled that the defendant had reached his 16th birthday before the date of the offense. The case thus stayed in district court and the defendant was tried and convicted as an adult.

I have had hundreds of cases wherein the age of a party was an important fact, but I have never had a case where a party’s age was disputed. Interesting circumstances arise in the law all the time, however, and you never know when you will get a case with an unusual issue.

Like proving the age of a living person by examining their teeth.

As always, remember it is your court.

(Paul Rasmussen is a district court judge in the Ninth Judicial District. He is chambered in Clearwater County and works primarily in Clearwater and Hubbard counties. His email address is paul.rasmussen@courts.state.mn.us.)

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