HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — A judge on Thursday ordered a 15-year-old tried as an adult on a charge of soliciting her father's stabbing death in a case that points toward a showdown over her mental state.
While the defense may argue Danielle Black has mental problems, winning an acquittal on the grounds that she was physically abused, as she claimed, could prove difficult, legal experts said.
While many battered women have been acquitted in cases that proved they retaliated after years of abuse, children accused of killing their parents have been less successful in using the defense, a criminology professor said.
The teen is accused of asking a friend on a school bus to kill her father, Billy Lee Black, 47, to end beatings she claimed she suffered but which police couldn't verify.
The boy refused, and Black was killed two days later on Halloween by another of Danielle's friends — 20-year-old Alec Eger, who hasn't implicated her in the slaying. He has pleaded not criminally responsible, an insanity defense, to a charge of first-degree murder.
Defense attorney Mary M. Drawbaugh hasn't revealed her strategy, but contended in court that Danielle does suffer from undiagnosed mental problems.
"We have a very disturbed, troubled, untreated young lady who fell prey to peers who filled her mind with undesirable thoughts," Drawbaugh said as she sought unsuccessfully to transfer the case to juvenile court.
Drawbaugh said Danielle will plead not guilty to solicitation of first-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Washington County Circuit Judge W. Kennedy Boone ordered the weeping girl held in the local jail on $200,000 bond. No trial date was set.
To convict Danielle, prosecutors must prove only that she asked the school friend, Matthew Gray, to kill her dad. Gray first told police that she asked him to kill her dad, but said later in a recorded statement that Danielle asked him to "take care of" Black, according to a detective's affidavit.
Boone said his ruling to send the case to adult court could enable Danielle to get a pretrial psychological examination that could bolster defense claims of mental problems.
Such an exam could form the basis for an argument that Danielle suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome, a defense that has been used successfully in some battered-spouse and battered-child cases, said Cynthia Orr, president-elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
"These younger folks feel much more helpless, much less able to have any power or control over the situation," Orr said. "And I can see how it would cause any friend of this young woman great distress that there won't be any help coming from the outside."
However, although the battered-woman defense is recognized in every state, only a few — including Louisiana, Texas and Wisconsin — allow the admission of battering evidence in cases of children killing their parents, said Kathleen M. Heide, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida and author of the books, "Why Kids Kill Parents" and "Young Killers, the Challenge of Juvenile Homicide." Maryland has no battered-child statute, according to the Maryland State's Attorneys Association.
Smith said parents are often in a vulnerable position — sleeping or watching television — when attacked, making it difficult to sell jurors on an emotional self-defense argument.
"It doesn't appear to a lay person that these children are in imminent danger. They tend to be scrutinized more closely," she said.
Clatsop County, Ore., District Attorney Joshua Marquis, a member of the National District Attorney's Association board of directors, said a battered-child defense is less likely to succeed when the defendant has persuaded someone else to kill the parent.
In most such cases, Marquis said, "it's an emotional collapse — someone grabs a gun and shoots their parents. That's a lot more understandable than a teenager who decides their parents are too strict and essentially plots their murder."