PHOENIX – A teenage Liberian refugee charged in the gang-rape of an 8-year-old girl will be sent to the juvenile system for therapy and released in less than three years, rather than face more than 25 years in prison if convicted as an adult, a Phoenix judge ruled Thursday.
The 15-year-old, whom The Associated Press is not naming because of his age, was 14 at the time of the July assault and had been the only one of four boys charged as an adult. All the children involved are refugees from the war-torn West African nation of Liberia.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael Kemp decided to send the teen's case to juvenile court Thursday, meaning he will undergo treatment and be released when he turns 18, possibly sooner.
"I thank God," said the teen's mother after falling to the floor in relief. "God did a great work for me. I'm almost in heaven."
The teen had pleaded not guilty in adult court to one count each of kidnapping, sexual assault and attempted sexual conduct with a minor, and five counts of sexual conduct with a minor. He would have faced at least 26 years in prison if convicted of every count as an adult.
Now he will have to be recharged in juvenile court, and his case will continue there. He'll be housed in a juvenile jail rather than the adult facility where's he has been since his arrest.
Kemp issued his ruling after listening to four days of testimony and arguments, which included the findings of several psychologists that the teen would be better off in the juvenile system. While prosecutors argued to keep the teen in the adult system, their expert witness said he should be in juvenile court.
Part of the lengthy testimony included a glimpse of the teen's life before he and his family fled Liberia as a refugee and came to the U.S. For 10 years, he witnessed rape and murder, sometimes of his own family members, and constantly had to relocate to different refugee camps during Liberia's civil war, according to the testimony.
Psychologist Steven Gray cited the teen's traumatic past as part of the reason the teen needs specialized treatment in juvenile court.
The seriousness of the crime was the most difficult factor in moving the case out of adult court, Kemp said.
"There is no sugarcoating it," he said, adding that he wasn't overlooking the gravity of the crime. But Kemp said he would not ignore the psychologists' findings and thinks the teen would receive inadequate treatment in the adult system.
Kemp emphasized that the teen will remain in a locked facility and the safety of the community was considered in the decision.
Four boys, ages 9 to 14, lured the girl to an empty west Phoenix storage shed on July 16 with the promise of chewing gum, restrained her and took turns raping her, police said.
The youngest was found incompetent to stand trial. The other two still are charged in juvenile court and are taking lessons designed to make them competent to stand trial.
The case prompted an international outcry after police reported the girl's father said she brought shame on the family and he didn't want her back — comments a family pastor later said were misunderstood because of a language barrier.
State child welfare officials have custody of the girl. The girl's 59-year-old father and 47-year-old mother are each charged with eight child abuse counts for abuse and neglect reports dating back to 2005. Those charges were filed in November.
Liberians worldwide are watching the case, and many are concerned about how they will be perceived because of the attack. Rape was a common practice during the country's 14 years of civil war, but Liberia now has some of the strictest laws against the crime in all of Africa.