In 2013, J.V., a 17-year-old boy, planned to acquire money and/or a cell phone through robbery outside of a train station in New Jersey. J.V. approached a stranger and asked to borrow his cell phone. In granting J.V.’s request, the stranger handed over the phone and watched as J.V. conducted a fake phone call and then returned, stating that he would instead be keeping the phone.
The stranger, startled by J.V.’s sudden shift, engaged in a struggle to retrieve his phone, unaware that the 17-year-old was carrying a kitchen knife. J.V. proceeded to stab the stranger nine times, seriously injuring him, then fleeing the scene. Witnesses alerted the authorities and a nearby off-duty police officer identified J.V. running away from the scene of the crime after hearing his physical description over police radio. J.V., reportedly covered in blood, was immediately taken into custody and shortly after, confessed.
While awaiting trial, J.V., who was placed in a juvenile detention facility, attempted suicide on at least six separate occasions, confirming his poor state of mental health. Though J.V. was a minor and had an IQ of 58 (by definition mentally impaired), J.V.’s case was moved out of juvenile court, and he was tried as an adult.
After determining that he was psychologically able to stand trial, the defense argued that his low IQ, poor mental health, and history of special education classes proved that, though J.V. was 17, his mental age was much lower. Because he had no history of violence or criminal activity, the defense also argued for rehabilitation in a juvenile detention facility over incarceration in a state correctional facility. At the time, however, N.J.S.A. statutes did not allow a juvenile’s maturity and mental health to factor into deciding his competency for adult criminal court.
Prosecution effectively argued that J.V.’s mental state and violent crimes against a stranger in a public place in daylight constituted his risk to public safety, and J.V. was convicted and incarcerated in a state correctional facility for a concurrent sentence of 18 years.
While, as an adult, he was charged with attempted murder, armed robbery, unlawful possession of a knife, and possession of a knife for an unlawful purpose, his charges would have been lessened dramatically if his status as a juvenile had been preserved. J.V. was sentenced on September 18, 2015. Soon after, New Jersey state government repealed the previous statute regarding juvenile offenders, replacing it with Section 26.1.
Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-26.1, the new statute, the court may deny a prosecutor’s motion to waive jurisdiction for a juvenile and try him as an adult based on “Age and maturity of the juvenile” (N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-26.1(3)(d)), “Any classification that the juvenile is eligible for special education to the extent this information is provided to the prosecution by the juvenile or by the court” (N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-26.1(3)(e)), or “Evidence of mental health concerns, substance abuse, or emotional instability of the juvenile to the extent this information is provided to the prosecution by the juvenile or by the court” (N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-26.1(3)(j)). Thus, under Section 26.1, J.V.’s age, mental capabilities, and overall mental health would have been adequate in denying the prosecution’s waiver.
Though Section 26.1 was passed on August 10, 2015, its implementation was set for seven months later, taking effect March 1, 2016. J.V. and his defense team appealed the original ruling and argued that, in light of the new statute, the waiving of J.V.’s juvenile jurisdiction was unjust and unlawful. In winning his appeal, J.V. was granted a new waiver hearing by the appellate division. J.V.’s case was argued in State Supreme Court March 3, 2020 and was decided June 11, 2020.
Justice Timpone delivered the majority opinion of the Court, which determined that because of the seven month gap in implementation, Section 26.1 was effective only prospectively, thus not applicable in J.V.’s case, which reached a conclusion prior to Section 26.1 taking effect. Though J.V. was sentenced barely a month after Section 26.1’s approval, “It became effective years after J.V. was waived to adult court” (Majority opinion p. 2).
Based on legal precedent determined in Twiss v. Dept. of Treasury (1991), “a statute’s ‘postponed effective date’ is evidence of the Legislature’s intent that the statute applies prospectively only” (Majority opinion p. 15-16). According to the majority opinion, N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-26.1’s “plain and unambiguous language” (Majority opinion p. 2) coupled with past legal precedent, left no room for retroactive implementation.
Although Section 26.1 was retroactively applied to a similar case regarding a 14-year-old boy, J.F., the Court determined that retroactive interpretation regarding age was permissible, “Given its decision in J.F., the Appellate Division concluded ‘[t]he waiver statute is ameliorative and thus subject to retroactive application’” (Majority opinion p. 8). However, New Jersey’s State Supreme Court determined that, while J.V.’s case did share some similarities with J.F.’s, J.F.’s case was argued in juvenile court both before and after the statute was implemented, meaning that J.F. was never tried as an adult.
Though J.V.’s original conviction may be considered morally controversial, the majority opinion’s interpretation of Section 26.1 is consistent with legal precedent and the strict language of the statute. To date, J.V., now an adult, remains incarcerated in a New Jersey state correctional facility.