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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 die?' He said, 'Your dad.'  And it was then that I knew.
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 alone.

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.

photo of shawn on the outside 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.

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