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Arkansas boys won't face federal charges

Mitchell Johnson, left, and Andrew Golden
Mitchell Johnson, left, and Andrew Golden in undated yearbook photos  
In this story: March 27, 1998
Web posted at: 8:14 p.m. EST (0114 GMT)

JONESBORO, Arkansas (CNN) -- As Jonesboro buried two of the four girls killed in a Tuesday schoolyard shooting, U.S. Justice Department officials said they will not attempt to prosecute the two boys believed responsible the deaths.

Senior Justice Department sources told CNN that government attorneys concluded that federal firearm statutes -- under which Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, might be charged -- would not have resulted in longer prison terms than are provided for in Arkansas law.

"In fact, the five-year sentence for firearms violations is shorter than is possible under existing Arkansas law," one source said.

Prosecutor Brent Davis had asked federal officials to determine if there were any federal charges that might result in longer prison terms than Arkansas law provides. Arkansas law forbids trying children age 13 and under as adults; federal law allows adult trials for defendants as young as 13.

Davis said that if the boys were found "delinquent" by a juvenile judge under Arkansas law, that both would probably be released on their 18th birthdays.

But prosecutors determined after studying the pertinent statutes that Johnson could not be tried as an adult given the facts of the case. Golden, they said, was clearly too young to qualify for prosecution as an adult.

Clinton promises review of shootings

Four girls and a teacher were killed and 10 were wounded at Westside Middle School Tuesday during a false fire alarm by heavy gunfire from nearby woods.


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  • Johnson and Golden, who were captured shortly after the shooting about 200 yards from the school, are being held on five counts of murder and 10 counts of battery.

    President Clinton, who has expressed particular interest in the shootings and who spoke with school principal Karen Curtner Thursday for about 10 minutes, promised Friday that there would be a federal review of the shooting.

    Speaking in Cape Town, South Africa, Clinton said the review would begin after the Jonesboro community has had "a chance to grieve."

    "Then," he said, "after a decent period, after I return home, the attorney general, I and others have got to compare this incident with the other two that have occurred in the last few try and determine what they have in common and whether there are other things we should do to prevent this kind of thing."

    Clinton is expected to return to Washington on April 2.

    Guns, ammunition, camping gear


    At an afternoon news briefing, a fact sheet about the shooting was distributed to the media despite the objections of the boys' attorneys.

    Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said the sheet was released only after Juvenile Court Judge Ralph Wilson declined a defense request to prohibit the release of the fact sheet.

    Reading from the sheet, which is a summation of facts about the case, Deputy Prosecutor Mike Walden said police seized three high-powered rifles and seven handguns, some of them semi-automatics, when they arrested the boys.

    Walden said 22 empty shell casings were found in the woods where the shots were fired. Two more empty shells were found in one of the handguns.

    Police also found a significant amount of ammunition, food and camping gear in a gray van parked nearby. The van belonged to Johnson's mother and stepfather.

    The guns and other items have been sent to the state police crime lab in Little Rock for testing. Walden said it would be some time before the results are known, but that he assumed they would be done in time for the next scheduled hearing for the boys on April 29.

    Responding to rumors about the case, there were no additional suspects and there was no evidence that any specific student was targeted.

    No facilities for 18 to 21-year-olds

    Federal juvenile law allows detention up to age 21 if the sentence lasts that long, which was Davis' reason for inquiring about federal charges.

    But federal officials had said privately that it was unlikely any charges would be brought. Only 250 federal cases a year are brought against juveniles, and more than half of them involve crimes on Native American land where federal law is the only law.

    Although Arkansas law allows youths convicted under state juvenile law to be held up to the age of 21, no one has ever been held past age 18, the state's legal age of adulthood.

    The reason: Arkansas law requires that 18 to 21-year-olds convicted as juveniles cannot be housed in juvenile facilities. And, in adult prisons, juveniles must be separated from adult inmates. Arkansas has no adult prison with such separate facilities.

    Bill Howard, a Craighead County public defender who is representing Mitchell Johnson, said Friday his client is "very upset," and probably will require "a forensic evaluation."

    "I'm not sure all of this has sunken in on him at this point," Howard said. "I'm sure as the days progress, it will. That may be the subject that a professional will speak to."

    'None of this fits into place'

    Howard said that "some people have volunteered their services" and "that's generally something we would do in any kid of case, whether it be adult or juvenile, of anything of this nature."

    Howard also said that while meeting Johnson and his family he had the feeling that "none of this fits into place here -- that none of this is really happening to him and his family."

    Correspondent Charles Zewe and Reuters contributed to this report


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