Jatwan Cuffie, the Butler High School freshman accused of the Oct. 29 fatal shooting of a fellow student, was indicted Monday on a reduced charge of second-degree murder.
Cuffie, 16, was initially charged with first-degree murder in the death of sophomore Bobby McKeithen, also 16.
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If convicted, Cuffie would face a prison sentence of 12 to 25 years.
The new charge of second-degree murder means the teen qualifies for a bond hearing — and a potential release from the Mecklenburg Jail where he has been held since his arrest. His next court appearance has not been scheduled.
Mecklenburg District Attorney Spencer Merriweather would not comment on the new charge against Cuffie, saying he is prohibited from discussing a pending case.
The direction of Cuffie’s prosecution was seen by legal advocates as an early test case of Merriweather’s pledge to give teen violent offenders more consideration before prosecutors recommended an appropriate punishment.
Six years ago, a landmark Supreme Court ruling found that those mandatory life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for defendants 18 and under.
In its “Miller v. Alabama” ruling, the high court said the so-called “death in prison” sentences should be reserved for “the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible,” and that lower courts should consider a defendant’s age, family background, emotional health and other factors before handing down a sentence.
Last month, a study by the nonprofit “Color of Change” criticized Mecklenburg prosecutors for continuing to push for the sentences anyway. Most of the cases cited occurred under Merriweather’s predecessor.
Eighteen states plus the District of Columbia have abolished life without parole sentences for teens.
“We are seeing prosecutors around the country, in jurisdictions big and small, blue and red, urban and rural, approaching these cases differently and no longer seeking death-in-prison sentences,” said Jake Sussman, a former Charlotte attorney and now managing director of the Justice Collaborative, a nonprofit advocating for criminal justice reform.
“This report highlights the opportunity for Spencer Merriweather and his office to join the rest of the country ... Children really are different.”
In an interview last month with the Observer before the Butler shooting took place, Merriweather promised to implement a process in which his prosecutors analyzed not only the crime but the young person accused of committing it.
“It’s extremely important that when a person is facing life without parole, especially someone who is a juvenile, you’ve got to make sure you are giving the case as careful a review as possible,” Merriweather said. “The potential consequences are so great.”
It’s unclear what role, if any, this new approach played in Cuffie’s reduced charge.
The Butler High shooting took place on a Monday morning before the start of classes. Video posted online showed a student, believed to be Cuffie, pulling a gun in the crowded hallway and shooting McKeithen in the side.
During an interview with Matthews police after his arrest, Cuffie said the shooting followed a fight in a Harris Teeter parking lot the Friday night before, according to documents. He told police he brought the gun to school for protection.
A spokesman said the family of McKeithen had no comment about the new charge against Cuffie.
“Our main focus right now is continuing to comfort his parents during these still difficult days,” said community activist Mario Black. “We are focusing on getting through this first Thanksgiving and the holidays altogether without Bobby. The simple thought of that has caused much pain.”
Mecklenburg County Assistant Public Defender Charlena Harvell, who has represented two former Mecklenburg teen killers who had their life without parole sentences thrown out under the 2012 “Miller” ruling, welcomed the reduced charge in the Butler case.
She said young offenders deserve to be punished if they are found guilty of a crime. But their age, brain development and other factors outlined by the Supreme Court should be considered “every time a punishment is considered.”
“Not sure what the reasoning was behind the second-degree charge ... but Mr. Cuffie will not face life without parole if his case goes to trial,” Harvell said. “That makes me very happy.”
Sussman, the former Charlotte defense attorney, struck a similar note.
“I don’t know enough about the prosecution’s theory to know what drove this decision to indict for second degree murder. But in light of Cuffie’s age, I hope the decision-making process involved full consideration of what the U.S. Supreme Court and science tells us: that even in very serious cases, like a homicide, children have a reduced level of moral culpability,” he said. “Sixteen year old children are psychologically and physiologically different.
“Children that age lack a mature sense of responsibility, which can lead to reckless, impulsive, and risky behavior.”
Jane Wester contributed.