On Christmas night 1998, in the affluent neighborhood of Los Altos, California,
16 year-old Shawn attacked his sleeping father, stabbing him repeatedly
in the arms, head and neck with a knife. The reason for the attack
remains unclear. Though there had been tension in the family over Shawn's
marijuana use and expulsion from school, his family says that his relationship
with his father had not been a violent one.
Shawn himself claims to have no memory of stabbing his father. His mother
describes waking up to her husband screaming; his father remembers being unable
to identify his attacker at first, then realizing it was his son and eventually
tackling him to the ground. Police and medical help arrived, and both were
taken to the hospital. Shawn didn't realize what had happened, he says, until a police officer approached him at the hospital: "The cop . . . said, 'You're gonna get charged with attempted murder, and if he dies, you're gonna get charged with first degree murder.' I said, 'If who dies?' He said, 'Your dad.' And it was then that I knew."
Shawn was charged with attempted murder. Prosecutors filed fitness papers to try Shawn in adult criminal court rather than in the juvenile system. If convicted in adult court of attempted
murder, Shawn would have faced a mandatory sentence of 15 years to life .
After much discussion with his parents, Shawn decided to plead guilty to the
charges and receive his punishment from the juvenile system, rather than risk
the substantial prison sentence. By staying in the juvenile system, he avoided
an adult criminal record, and would get a shorter sentence since the juvenile system
could only hold him until he was 25.
Prior to this incident, there had been signs that Shawn was troubled. He had
been arrested and charged with strong-arm robbery when he and a friend stole
money from a smaller boy. Shawn says his drinking had escalated
into serious marijuana use, and he was asked to leave two schools. At the
juvenile court dispositional hearing which would determine his sentence, it became clear that
there were serious problems in the household which had contributed to Shawn's
drug use and troubled behavior. His mother had a drinking problem. Shawn told
FRONTLINE that it was she who had introduced him to drinking at an early age.
His father was often away on business trips, leaving Shawn and his mother
In an effort to understand Shawn's behavior, the court ordered a psychological
evaluation. The report found no significant psychiatric disturbances, but
instead it proposed that the attack stemmed from "an altered state of
consciousness" coming from "a disturbance of sleep." Based on this
report, Shawn's public defender Bridgett Jones prepared a stunning new
argument in his defense: he was sleep walking when he attacked his father, and
therefore did not intend to do it.
At the hearing, attorneys for each side presented sleep research experts. Dr.
Rafael Pelayo, of Stanford University's sleep clinic, agreed that
"parasomnia" was a plausible explanation for Shawn's behavior. In his interview with FRONTLINE, he noted that
family dysfunction often plays a role in parasomnia in children. The
prosecution's expert disagreed, saying that parasomnia was not a likely explanation for the attack
Since Shawn's case was so unusual and the testimony in such conflict, Judge Thomas Edwards postponed his determination of Shawn's sentence and sent him for
a 90-day evaluation at the California Youth Authority, the state's most
restrictive juvenile detention facility. During his first week there, Shawn
says he was pressured by a white gang member to force his cellmate to perform
oral sex. He says he didn't want to do it, but complied because he was
frightened for his own safety.
When Shawn returned, Judge Edwards handed down a sentence that surprised some people in court. After the incident with his cellmate, it seemed likely that Shawn
would receive at least some time in the California Youth Authority. However, Judge
Edwards ruled that Shawn remain in the Santa Clara County's Juvenile Hall until he turns 19. In addition, Shawn would be allowed to leave the facility during
the day to attend community college classes, private counseling sessions, and
Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Eventually he was even allowed to go home for
meals with his family.
The prosecutor was surprised, and troubled, by the outcome. He said, "At the end, I think everyone in that courtroom was ready to fall out of their chairs. And I think that it was a tremendous injustice that was done in this case. Not just the fact that we didn't treat this individual the way that he should have been treated - in my opinion - but that we have created the perception in the community that certain people are going to be treated differently in the system, because of where they come from."
He is not the only one. Many of the kids serving time in Juvenile Hall think Shawn got a break, and that had he not been white and from an affluent neighborhood, he would have received a much harsher sentence. Even his attorney
Bridgett Jones says that this case reminds her: "There is inequity in the
juvenile justice system . . . . There is inequity in terms of race, there is
inequity in terms of socioeconomic status. . . . You know it and you see it,
but to actually have a case like this, it really brings it to the forefront."
Whether Shawn will take advantage of the break he has been given remains to be
seen. At the end of October he got into trouble again--he smoked pot. When he thought his probation officer knew and had proof, he took off. When he was arrested four hours away in another town, he was high and belligerent, and officers had to use force to restrain him. In February Judge Edwards is due to sentence him for the probation violation. He can send him to the California Youth Authority, or sentence him to additional time in a local facility.
manny · shawn · marquese · jose
from both sides of the bench · facts & stats · related report: little criminals
discussion · synopsis · press · tapes & transcripts · credits
FRONTLINE · wgbh · pbs
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation