Thursday, June 08, 2000

Murder suspect, 52, adult or juvenile?

Wehrung case raises dilemma for court

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Michael Wehrung's hair is graying at the temples, and his eyesight isn't what it used to be. He is a 52-year-old man with a wife, a family, a full-time job, a car and a house. In court today, he will say he is a juvenile.

        The claim may sound absurd coming from a middle-aged man charged with murder in one of Greater Cincinnati's most memorable crimes. But it is serious business to Mr. Wehrung and Ohio's juvenile court system.

        His case raises one of the toughest questions in American justice: How should courts handle adults who are accused of committing crimes as children?

        It is a question that will be asked more often in coming years as aggressive prosecutors and advances in DNA technology help track down suspects decades after crimes.

        Some of those suspects end up in legal limbo — caught between juvenile and adult courts — because they were kids when the crimes took place.

        That's where Mr. Wehrung finds himself today as he begins a pre-trial hearing that will decide where his case belongs.

Wehrung (center), watches investigators at the murder scene.
(1963 photo)
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        He's accused of beating to death his girlfriend, Patricia Rebholz, in Greenhills in 1963. He was 15 at the time, and 37 years elapsed before he was charged.

        “The question is: What the hell do you do with this guy?” says Paul Giannelli, co-author of the Ohio Juvenile Law Handbook. “It's just a nightmare given the way the law is construed.”

        The dilemma is not limited to Ohio's courts. Michael Skakel, 39-year-old nephew of the Kennedy family, was recently charged in Connecticut with the murder of Martha Moxley 25 years ago.

        As in Mr. Wehrung's case, Mr. Skakel's judge must decide how to deal with a “juvenile” who is as old as his attorneys. Mr. Skakel's case is pending in juvenile court.

        The stakes are high in both cases because of the fundamental differences between adult and juvenile courts.

        For Mr. Wehrung, the judge's decision could be the difference between a possible life sentence in adult court and no punishment at all in juvenile court if he's convicted.

        To Mr. Wehrung's attorneys, it's an easy call: Their client should be treated like the teen-ager he was in 1963.

        And if he is found guilty, he should go free, because juvenile court can only hold him in detention until he turns 21.

        “The law in 1963 was clear and unambiguous,” his lawyers wrote in a legal brief last month. “The juvenile court had exclusive jurisdiction.”

Patty's blood-stained blouse, held by assistant prosecutor Mark Piepmeier last January.
(Gary Landers photo)
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Debate over jurisdiction
        Prosecutors say the juvenile court lost jurisdiction when Mr. Wehrung became an adult. “How much sense does it make to try an adult — a 35- or 40- or 50-year-old person — in juvenile court?” Prosecutor Mike Allen says.

        The key to Mr. Allen's argument is a 1996 law that allows juvenile cases to go to adult court if the suspect was “not apprehended or taken into custody” until adulthood.

        The new law was intended to finally settle the debate over adult defendants in juvenile court.

        Instead, it has raised more questions.

        Some say the new law is unfair because adult defendants now face more punishment than they would have if police had charged them when they were still juveniles.

        “It's bad law,” says John Burlew, a Cincinnati attorney who has practiced for more than 20 years in juvenile court.

        He says he understands why prosecutors and the public are frustrated by the inability to punish adults charged as juveniles.

        But he says the goal of juvenile court is not to punish, but to transform troubled youths into productive adults. And if decades of living have already done that for the likes of Mr. Wehrung and Mr. Skakel, then that mission has been accomplished.

        “It's really a question of what society wants juvenile courts to be,” Mr. Burlew says. “If rehabilitation is not the purpose, then don't have a juvenile court.”

        A more pressing concern, he says, is the prosecution's use of the 1996 law to get Mr. Wehrung into adult court.

        “The law should not be retroactive,” says Mr. Burlew, a former president of Cincinnati's Bar Association.

        Prosecutors say the law is not retroactive because the possible penalties for murder have not changed in either court. They say the law merely changes the court in which the case can be heard.

        Mr. Wehrung's attorneys, Earle Maiman and James Perry, say that claim is “awash in flawed logic.” They point out that by allowing a change in court — from juvenile to adult — the law in effect stiffens the penalties.

        And that, they say, is unfair and unconstitutional.

        Even the man who helped draft the new law says he isn't sure it should apply to Mr. Wehrung.

        William Kurtz, who worked on early versions of the law with the Association of Juvenile Court Judges, says the law is supposed to target defendants who either fled prosecution or were not identified as suspects until adulthood.

        But in Mr. Wehrung's case, the teen-age suspect was a target of the investigation from the day Patricia's body was found.

        He was, in fact, questioned so often that a juvenile court judge stepped in, declared him a ward of the court and ordered police to back off.

        “He doesn't fit neatly into the parameters of the new law,” Mr. Kurtz says.

"More of the same' likely
        Whatever Judge Patrick Dinkelacker decides, few expect Mr. Wehrung's journey through the court system to be the last of its kind.

        As crime rates fall nationwide, aggressive prosecutors are putting more resources into solving older cases. “I think there's a good chance this could occur more,” Mr. Kurtz says.

        Although not a factor in Mr. Wehrung's case, DNA and forensic technology will likely help those prosecutors turn up more “adult juveniles” in the years to come.

        Just last week, Hamilton County's coroner proposed creating a cold-case squad to review unsolved crimes.

        “Many law enforcement agencies are looking at these old cases,” Mr. Allen says. “I wouldn't be surprised to see more of the same.”

  • Investigation reopens Nov. 17, 1999
  • 1963 evidence unsealed Jan. 6, 2000
  • Reporter revisits case Jan. 22, 2000
  • Probe almost over Mar. 17, 2000
  • Cheerleader's boyfriend charged 37 years after murder May 3, 2000

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