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Judge to choose adult or juvenile court in Howard murder

Morgan Lane Arnold's bedroom at her mother's house was painted pink and lilac, with white unicorns prancing in a border that ran along the walls. Even at 14, her mother said, she still believed in unicorns.

The room has been repainted recently, the unicorns vanished under layers of pale blue and sea green, and Arnold, at 15, is now an adult in the eyes of the law. She is charged with first-degree murder and four other counts in the stabbing last year of her father, prominent Howard County businessman and blogger Dennis Lane.

Her lawyer wants her case moved to juvenile court, arguing that she is not a danger to society and could be helped by treatment. The prosecutor opposes the move, emphasizing the seriousness of the crime and the potential danger. A circuit judge will make the decision after a hearing.

Arnold's boyfriend and former Mount Hebron High schoolmate, Jason A. Bulmer, 20, could be sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty last week to first-degree murder. Prosecutors say he stabbed Lane to death with a kitchen knife at his home in Ellicott City early on the morning of May 10, 2013.

Prosecutors say Bulmer told police that Arnold told him to kill her father because "she was sick of him."

The killing shook Howard County, where Lane was well known through his work in commercial real estate, his column in Business Monthly and his blog. Those close to him have mixed emotions about how Arnold's case should be handled.

Friend and fellow blogger Tom Coale of Columbia said he understands the anger toward Arnold, but mostly wonders what Lane would want now for his daughter. Others, he said, are more certain.

"There are family members and friends who would like to see both of these individuals spend the rest of their lives in prison," he said.

Arnold's case unfolds as a dispute about Maryland's system of charging juveniles as adults for certain crimes moves to the General Assembly, which is considering a bill that would allow more teens who have been charged as adults to request transfer to the juvenile system.

The proposal is opposed by prosecutors, who told a state task force last year that the juvenile system is not equipped to safely hold violent youth defendants before they are tried and that the prison terms it allows are not long enough.

Advocates for juveniles say the current system does not curb crime, exposes youngsters to the violence and destructive influence of adult criminals, and ignores scientific evidence that adolescents are different from adults in their thinking.

Cindi Arnold says her daughter belongs in juvenile court. When arrested in May, her daughter was emotionally immature for 14, had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and Asperger's, a form of autism, and retreated from the difficulties of social life into fantasy, Cindi Arnold said.

"She literally still believed in unicorns and fairies and vampires," Cindi Arnold said. "For her, these were real things."

The girl is accused of plotting with Bulmer to kill her father and his fiancee, Denise Geiger, at the home in Ellicott City where Arnold lived when not with her mother in Catonsville.

Geiger was present during the attack that occurred about 4 a.m. in an upstairs hallway, but was not hurt. Lane, 58, was stabbed several times. He was found dead in his bed.

Assistant State's Attorney Danielle M. Duclaux told the court last week that the two teenagers exchanged Skype messages about killing Lane, making detailed plans in the days before the crime. Arnold egged Bulmer on, Duclaux said, and hours before the attack told him that she had unlocked the basement door so he could get into the house quietly.

Cindi Arnold questions how her daughter can be held to the same standard of responsibility as an adult.

"You're talking about a juvenile who does not yet have the physical capability of good judgment to see the consequences of action," she said. Cindi Arnold shared custody of the girl with Lane, to whom she was never married.

Attorney Joseph Murtha, who is representing Arnold, has filed a motion to have the case transferred to juvenile court. He told the court the case meets the legal requirements for transfer, saying Arnold does not pose a threat to society, that she would be a good candidate for treatment in the juvenile system, that she's never been transferred between adult and juvenile court before and that her mental and chronological age match.

In a motion opposing a transfer, prosecutor Douglas L. Nelsen emphasized the seriousness of the charges and the "risk to public safety." Nelsen declined to comment for this article.

Murtha said in an interview last week that the seriousness of the charges weigh against the transfer request, "so the other factors have to be very compelling."

Much will depend on the recommendation of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, which has conducted several interviews with Morgan Arnold. An agency spokesman said those recommendations are not made public.

It is common practice for defense lawyers to request transfer on behalf of juveniles charged as adults, but it is difficult to say how often they are successful. No statewide statistics have been compiled, said Jason R. Tashea, juvenile justice policy director for Advocates for Children & Youth.

The organization did a study limited to Baltimore, focusing on juveniles charged as adults from 2009 through 2011. During those three years, 907 juveniles were charged as adults and 255, or 28 percent, were granted transfer to juvenile court.

James Johnston, who heads the juvenile unit of the Baltimore City office of the public defender, said his office has stepped up efforts on behalf of juveniles eligible for transfer. In 2013, he said, 80 percent of its transfer requests were approved.

In his experience, said Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, juvenile defendants charged as adults in extremely violent crimes usually do not have their cases transferred to juvenile court. The law now names 33 crimes — most of them violent — that are automatically handled in adult court.

Shellenberger represented Maryland prosecutors last year before the task force that is considering the juvenile court's role and making recommendations to lawmakers. He argued in favor of retaining the current system.

"These aren't children," Shellenberger said in an interview. "These are criminal defendants who in many cases have committed a very violent and heinous act."

Shellenberger declined to comment on Arnold's case, but he mentioned her in his PowerPoint presentation before the task force. He added her photograph to a gallery of notoriously violent cases involving juvenile defendants. He also included Nicholas W. Browning, who was sentenced at age 16 to four life terms for killing his parents and two brothers at his home in Cockeysville in 2008.

Browning was denied a transfer request, as were most of the 14 teenagers that Shellenberger mentioned in his presentation, including three youths who violently assaulted staff members after they were committed to detention centers run by the Department of Juvenile Services.

Shellenberger argues two main points: The juvenile system is not equipped to hold violent defendants before trial, and the juvenile system can hold youths only until they turn 21, which in many instances is not sufficient punishment.

"Do you want Nick [Browning] released after just six years in a juvenile detention facility?" he asked in his presentation.

Advocates for juveniles say the practice of charging youngsters as adults stems from a crackdown on violent crime that emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s — and it has failed. They point to national studies which show that young people who are sent to adult prisons become more dangerous than those who were committed to juvenile services.

Johnston, the public defender in Baltimore City, said the current system "runs counter to both common sense and what scientists know about adolescent brain development. ... The fact is, children are different."

He points to three Supreme Court decisions since 2005 that recognize the evidence for this distinction, including cases in 2010 and 2012 that limited the use of mandatory life sentences for juveniles.

In the 2010 case, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that the failings of an adult and a juvenile should not be equated, "for a greater possibility exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed."

Cindi Arnold agrees.

"What kind of world do we want to create," she asked, "where we put children in prison and don't see them as humans with potential?"

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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