June 26--The judge who transferred Jonathan Ray, 14, to adult court on murder charges Tuesday said he found it "striking" that warning signs the youth was potentially homicidal or suicidal weren't taken more seriously.
"We knew a year ago this young man harbored dark thoughts," Shelby County Juvenile Court Special Judge Dan Michael said, in announcing his decision to transfer Ray on a charge of felony first-degree murder in the arson death of the teen's mother, Gwendolyn Wallace, 45.
Ray was committed to a hospital for 10 days in 2012 for "suicidal and homicidal ideations" last year and then sent to therapy. His therapist previously testified that the youth was showing progress in dealing with depression and anger, but his parents abruptly stopped bringing him to counseling after five sessions.
Ray's lead attorney, Robert Gowen, called that the biggest tragedy in this case, saying his client -- a Southwind High School football standout -- could have been redirected with proper help for his mental illness.
The judge responded: "We won't know."
Michael said he believes prosecutors' contention that Ray killed his mother with premeditation after she grounded him from seeing his girlfriend.
After Ray's stepfather, security guard James Wallace, left the family's home early on April 5 to fill in for a sick co-worker, investigators say Ray went to the garage to grab the gasoline can. They said he poured the accelerant on carpet at the base of stairs that led from the living room to the upstairs, where his mother slept, and set it on fire.
On his way out, Ray disconnected the only functioning smoke detector in the house, setting it on the floor, the judge concluded.
In a fiery argument lobbying for transfer, Dan Byer, an assistant district attorney, said Ray knew his mother would die after he blocked her escape route.
"He set that trap for her," Byer said. "He set that fire. And he walked out."
The prosecutor said autopsy findings show Wallace, a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier, "was alive as she burned."
Ray left the house near Hacks Cross and Shelby Drive in Southeast Shelby County, and went for a walk. He returned later and stood next to a neighbor across the street at about 6 a.m. as they watched fire fighters battle the blaze.
When officials approached him to ask if anyone was inside the house, the teen repeatedly said he didn't know.
"He stood outside across the street and said nothing," Byer said. "Those seconds were critical and he knew that."
The prosecutor described the teen as manipulative, not remorseful.
When interviewed by Shelby County Sheriff's investigators, he cried when they exposed his initial lies blaming the fire on someone else. However, investigators said he seemed nonchalant, not tearful, when he was told his mother's body had been found.
Byer also pointed to trouble the teen has had while jailed after his mother's death, including trying to hide a fork in his shirt sleeve.
He has cursed and threatened a female detention officer, gotten into a fight, and threatened to kill other juvenile detainees, the prosecutor said. During a meeting with the court psychologist, detention officers leapt across the room when they thought the 6-foot-2, 205-pound teen was about to pounce at her, Byer said.
Gowen, an assistant public defender, had urged the judge to leave Ray in the juvenile system and place him in state custody where he could get adequate mental health treatment for the first time.
"He can be helped," Gowen said.
The judge said his decision was guided by the defense's own mental health expert, who testified that he wasn't certain the teen could be rehabilitated.
After the hearing, Ray, 14, collapsed to the floor and sobbed loudly in an inmate holding area adjacent to the courtroom.
"He was too upset to talk" to the defense team, Gowen said. "He's a child, and he cried like a child. He knows it's bad."
If convicted on the first-degree murder charge, Ray would face an automatic sentence of life in prison. Parole would not be possible, even with good behavior credits, for 51 years. And prosecutors may try to seek a sentence of life without parole.
But Gowen, who successfully convinced the judge to toss out the teen's confession, said outside court that an acquittal is possible in a case with limited physical evidence and no eye witness.
"It wouldn't be the first time I've walked a 'murder one' suspect out of jail. It wouldn't be the second time," the defense attorney said. "There's very little evidence."
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