Allentown criminal defense attorney Gavin Holihan discusses the difficulties of representing a juvenile murder defendant.
Their crimes are shocking, all the more so because of their ages.
Not only has the Lehigh Valley had its share of juveniles who kill, but many of their murders have been particularly callous.
There's the 17-year-old boy from Allentown who drew up a chilling list of "things to do when you get a girl in the woods," then acted out those macabre fantasies. There's the 14-year-old gang member who executed one teenager in Easton and almost killed another.
There are the neo-Nazi brothers, Bryan and David Freeman, who as teenagers slaughtered their family in Salisbury Township in 1995 with the help of their cousin. There's 1990s serial killer Harvey Robinson of Allentown, who took the life of the first of his three murder victims when he was 17.
Prosecutors and victims' families say the horror of such killings shows that evil knows no age. But though youth has long been seen as a period of innocence, a growing body of scientific research — cited often by defense attorneys representing kids who kill — suggests it is also a time in which the brain has a greater capacity for cruelty.
That debate is one that has divided even the U.S. Supreme Court, where the barest of majorities in the past decade has banned the death penalty and automatic life sentences for juveniles, citing scientific evidence that children lack the brain development for self-control that adults have.
It likely will be front and center again in the case of 14-year-old Jamie L. Silvonek, an eighth-grader from Upper Macungie Township charged with having her mother killed because she wouldn't let the girl date a 20-year-old soldier she'd met at a concert.
When homicide charges were announced against Silvonek this month, Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin highlighted a series of text messages the girl allegedly sent to her boyfriend, Caleb G. Barnes, of Fort Meade, Md., who is accused of physically committing the killing.
"I want her gone," the girl said in one text, according to court records.
Cheryl Silvonek, 54, was slain March 15 in her sport utility vehicle while it was parked in the driveway of the family's suburban home. Barnes allegedly admitted to investigators that he stabbed her in the neck several times while her daughter sat in the rear seat, police said.
Jamie Silvonek is the youngest girl in Lehigh County history to be charged as an adult with homicide. Police said surveillance footage from a Walmart captured her and Barnes playfully shopping for cleaning supplies shortly after the killing. Within hours, her mother's body was found in a shallow grave in South Whitehall Township, her vehicle submerged in a nearby pond.
But Jamie Silvonek's attorney, John Waldron, says he plans to argue that she was just a child under the sway of an older and more sophisticated man. He has hired Frank Dattilio, a prominent forensic psychologist, to examine the teen.
"Oftentimes in these cases, the million-dollar question for a judge is how can this happen? Why did this happen?" Waldron said. "Often that's not a question for a lawyer, but for a psychologist."
Research on children's brains and how their development affects their capacity for crime is not seeking to make excuses, Waldron said.
"It's true. It's just part of growing up, that you're maturing in different ways," he said.
A teenager's impulse control is not as developed as an adult's, said Darby Fox, a child and adolescent family therapist in Connecticut who works with at-risk kids through Horizons, a nationwide program. Changes to the brain during puberty can promote risky behavior, she said.
Likening a teenager's brain to a car with a good accelerator but a weak brake, Fox said, "Teens can be rational and know the difference between right and wrong but are less likely to put the brakes on impulsive actions."
That's because the brain's frontal cortex — the part that controls judgment and reasoning — is not fully developed until a person is about 25, Fox said. This means a teen is less able to stop aggressive or impulsive activity.
Neuroscience shows that teens rely mostly on "gut instinct," from the more emotional parts of their brains, she said, adding that this might explain why teen murders seem to be fueled by intense rage.
"The pathway for processing behavior is short-circuited and we see only emotional fight or flight behavior. The teen murderer is only acting on aggressive emotional response," Fox said.
"I read the list," remembers Danni's stepmother, Dawn Romig, who raised the child as her own. "It was very upsetting. Everything that was on it, he did. Almost everything he did."
Bahr, now 29, is serving a life sentence. Romig said juvenile or not, he deserves no less.
"I think kids should be taught about consequences. If you take somebody's life, it should pretty much be done with you," Romig said. "If you're going to take someone's life as a teenager, you're thinking as an adult."
While it may be generally true that juveniles are immature and lack checks on their behavior, Terence Houck, first deputy district attorney in Northampton County, said that's not what spurs all teen killers to act.
He pointed to Qu'eed Batts, a 14-year-old murderer and Bloods gang member whom he prosecuted for shooting to death 16-year-old Clarence Edwards and wounding 18-year-old Cory Hilario in 2006 in Easton's West Ward.
Houck said that on the mean streets Batts occupied, he was no child — a conclusion that Northampton County Judge Michael Koury Jr. echoed in May when resentencing Batts after his original, automatic, life term was thrown out as unconstitutional.
"Mercy for Mr. Batts will have to come from God," Koury said in rejecting a lesser sentence and again giving Batts, now 24, life without parole.
Houck calls Batts "an upwardly mobile gang member" who had been selling drugs for some time before he killed to rise in rank.
"Everything he did was geared toward his own self-promotion, which flies in the face of this whole immaturity thing," Houck said.
Philip Lauer, a prominent attorney who defended Batts, maintained throughout his client's proceedings that he was influenced by an older gang leader, Vernon R. Bradley, now 31 and serving 20 to 40 years for his role in the shooting. Batts testified at trial that he was operating under orders from Bradley, who had handed him a gun and a mask and told him to "put in some work."
Lauer said his client's response must be seen in the context of his age and immaturity, and the scientific evidence on juvenile brain development.
"With someone who is 14, you have someone who literally doesn't have the equipment to do the right thing," said Lauer, who argues that youths, even those who commit seemingly callous crimes, shouldn't necessarily be written off.
"You have to take into consideration whether the person, as opposed to the act committed, is so flawed and evil that there's no chance of that person eventually finding their way back to a normal functioning brain, life, all the rest of it," Lauer said.
In Pennsylvania, that's a question that is often weighed when teens charged as adults petition to have their cases moved to juvenile court, where treatment tends to take precedence over punishment and a person is freed from custody at age 21.
Waldron has said he plans to file such a petition in Silvonek's case, which Martin says prosecutors will oppose.
Mercy for Bucks boy
When police in Bucks County arrested 13-year-old Kareem Watts for the May 2000 murder of his 33-year-old neighbor, Darlyne Jules, residents of Morrisville were shocked that the brutal stabbing was committed by someone so young.
Jules was stabbed more than 70 times in her chest, neck and torso. A pathologist determined that some of the wounds occurred after she was dead. Her 7-year-old son found her body hidden under a pile of bloody laundry.
Watts, the youngest person ever arrested for murder in Bucks, was initially charged as an adult. Bucks County Judge Kenneth Biehn moved the boy's case to juvenile court, where he remained under supervision until he was 21.
The judge made the ruling after evidence showed that Watts' childhood was marked by abuse and neglect.
Born prematurely, Watts spent much of his childhood sleeping in Trenton, N.J., crack houses or in cars with his drug-addicted mother. The oldest of three boys, at 12 he got a paper route to raise rent money. But he didn't earn enough and his family was evicted.
Watts was smoking "wet," a mixture of marijuana and embalming fluid, on the day of the killing. For years he had reported hearing voices that told him to do bad things, court records said.
Doctors traced some of Watts' mental health problems to an incident when he was 9. While staying at a friend's house with his mother, Watts ingested nine hits of acid and was awake and hallucinating for four days.
"His family sought no medical attention," court records said.
Juvenile sentences must be reviewed at least every six months, so Watts was back in Biehn's court a couple of times a year. The judge and the juvenile became pen pals, exchanging letters about Watts' school progress.
At Watts' last court hearing, just before he turned 21, they shook hands and hugged, and promised to keep in touch.
When Watts attacked his neighbor, he became part of a very small group. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2012, the last year for which statistics are available, only 11 children under the age of 15 were charged with homicide in the United States.
Many of the new initiatives being implemented in juvenile probation departments statewide were sparked by emerging research on adolescent brain development, said Elizabeth Fritz, Lehigh County's chief of juvenile probation and president of the Pennsylvania Council of Chief Juvenile Probation Officers.
Many of the groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have been handed down in recent years, including the ruling that made it unconstitutional to automatically sentence a juvenile murderer to life in prison, were shaped by these scientific developments, she said.
"Pennsylvania is a very progressive state in this area. Our judges are very in tune to the Supreme Court cases and to the new research," Fritz said.
Gavin Holihan, an Allentown defense attorney who frequently represents juveniles, called the changes positive, but said they don't go far enough. He thinks the courts should have applied the rule retroactively, so that adults serving life for homicides they committed as juveniles would have a chance for parole.
It is fiction to treat teen killers as though they are as sophisticated as adults, Holihan said. Even their demeanor in court belies that claim, he said.
"Juvenile defendants really have an overly simplified view of the criminal justice system. They don't know what to expect, they don't know how to conduct themselves. We have kids who still raise their hand and ask to be heard by the judge in court," Holihan said.
Later this year, Lehigh County's juvenile probation department will hold enhanced training sessions for court workers and law enforcement on advances in neuroscience pertaining to youth.
"There is a lot of new information out there and it's our job to educate everyone who works in the juvenile justice system," Fritz said.
10-year old jailed
One of the youngest children ever accused of murder is from Pennsylvania. Tristen Kurilla, 10, of Wayne County, was arrested in October after he allegedly beat 90-year-old Helen Novak to death.
Novak was living at Kurilla's grandfather's house. The boy told police he lost his temper when the woman yelled at him, so he punched her several times in the stomach and throat. He also allegedly admitted to choking her with a cane.
Kurilla was initially charged as an adult and sent to the county jail, where he passed his time coloring.
On Jan. 5, a Wayne County judge transferred Kurilla's case to juvenile court, after finding he was amenable to treatment. Kurilla could be under the court's supervision until he's 21.
In Northampton County, 12-year-old Joshua Geier saw the same result when he was charged as an adult in 2002 with shooting and killing his mother, Diane, as she lay on the sofa in their Lower Saucon Township home.
Though Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli called it an intentional act of murder that deserved adult consequences, the case was moved to juvenile court. There, a judge ruled the shooting amounted to involuntary manslaughter, a misdemeanor, and Geier was placed in treatment. He was released in December 2005, when he was 15, and now lives in Arizona, according to his Facebook page.
Cases like Kurilla's and Geier's point to the stark differences that are seen when juveniles are treated as adults or as children by the justice system.
If Silvonek is decertified, as her attorney hopes, she could be held until she is 21 — less than seven years from now. If convicted of first-degree murder as an adult, she would face a minimum of 25 years in prison and could be sentenced to life without parole.