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Juvenile murder trial would be first of its kind

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

If Jeffrey Winslow, Jr., stands trial in juvenile court on charges of murder, he will be the first in the history of Clayton County.

Juvenile court records show only one other case, from 1990, when someone under 17 was charged with murder as a juvenile. That case was transferred to Superior Court, however, where the teen was later tried as an adult.

Four years later, state lawmakers passed a law which says juveniles charged with any of the "seven deadly sins" -- a list topped by murder -- are to be automatically charged as an adult.

The law comes with a timeline, though. Apparently concerned that juveniles would be charged with one of the seven "adult" crimes, thrown into jail with adult criminals while they awaited trial, and then left languishing there, making possible rehabilitation harder, a bill was passed requiring juveniles charged as adults must be indicted within 180 days.

If they're not charged within the six-month time frame, and there's no "good cause" for the delay, then, according to the law, juveniles have to be charged as juveniles.

The only one that's ever happened to in Clayton County, on charges of murder, is Winslow.

The 17-year-old from Jonesboro allegedly shot and killed Edward Bernard Mills in an argument about marijuana and money, in October 2007, when he was 16.

He was charged as an adult, but more than 180 days passed without an indictment, and Winslow's case was sent to juvenile court. As an adult, the 17-year-old faces a maximum possible sentence of life in prison, if he's convicted of murder. As a juvenile, he faces a maximum possible sentence of being held in juvenile detention until he's 21, in January 2012, four years from now.

Clayton County Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield, ruling on a motion to keep Winslow's case in superior court, said there was no "good cause" for the delay in the District Attorney's prosecution. She described it as "negligence."

Winslow was schedule to appear for a probable cause hearing in juvenile court on Monday. The hearing was postponed, records show, because the District Attorney's office has filed a "Motion for Reconsideration" in a last-ditch effort to keep the murder case in superior court.

Benefield is scheduled to hear the motion Friday morning. In the order the District Attorney's office wants reconsidered, Benefield pointedly said the law requires that "good cause" be shown and the prosecutors hadn't met that standard by saying it was the police department's fault or that there was a confusion about when the 180-day time frame started.

Neither Senior Assistant District Attorney Anece Baxter White, who is handling the case, nor Chief Assistant District Attorney Todd Naugle, who was supervising the case on behalf of District Attorney Jewel Scott, could be reached for comment, Wednesday, about the motion for reconsideration.

They are expected to argue, in the hearing, that Benefield's previous order is wrong, because they did make efforts to comply with the timeline law.

If Benefield rejects the appeal, jurisdiction will go to juvenile court and a trial could begin in 10 days.

The laws that put Winslow's case in juvenile court, facing a maximum possible sentence of four years, could be changed, in the near future. Lawmakers are expected to look at a comprehensive re-write of the state's juvenile code, perhaps in 2009, which has been worked up by JUSTGeorgia, a coalition that wants to update and modify the code.

In the model juvenile code the group plans to submit to legislators, there would be no "seven deadly sins," and those under 18 would always be charged as juveniles, regardless of the seriousness of the crime.

A juvenile found guilty of murder, though, could receive a "blended sentence," serving in juvenile detention and then, when becoming an adult, serving the remainder of the sentence in an adult penitentiary.

Even if adopted, though, the proposed changes wouldn't affect Winslow, who may become the only person ever tried on charges of murder as a juvenile in Clayton County.