Just before Christmas I spent a little time with Zachary Neagle. When Zach was charged with the murder of his father in March of 2009, I followed the case with special interest. I am a dad and I could not imagine what might lead a kid to kill anyone – let alone his father. Fathers are supposed to be protectors and providers. But here was this little kid in an orange jumpsuit facing the most serious crime.
Charged as an adult. As if this little scrub was a man.
Eventually Charles Craft, Zach’s lawyer – and a fine lawyer and Zach’s protector at that – called and offered me the chance to get involved. I saw the case as a chance to keep this kid from spending his life in prison. The prosecutor in the case had even suggested that "he" had taken the death penalty off the table because of Zach’s age – which was really no concession because the United States Supreme Court had ruled years before that someone Zach’s age was not old enough to be executed. Maybe Bujack knew that – more likely he did not.
Zach’s story had been told on primetime news programs across the nation. He had killed his father to protect his brother and sister from facing the sexual abuse he had experienced.
So I got in the case with Charles Crafts and I met Zach’s family, and read the court cases dealing with such matters, and I came to the conclusion that this was the riskiest of propositions. If the case went to trial and Zach was convicted of murder he would go to an adult prison. All 4-foot-8-inches of him. Eighty pounds of kid in a place where inmates able to lift more than that amount with one hand would turn him into someone none of us could imagine.
I imagined that he might win at trial. Lots of people told me that no jury would ever convict a kid who killed to protect himself from child abuse. But a jury would have to conclude that Zach acted out of necessity to protect himself and his siblings – not out of revenge for the wrongs he had experienced. That risk was simply too much for a kid so young. So in the end Zach plead guilty to manslaughter, not murder, and he headed off to juvenile corrections.
When he sentenced Zach, the judge voiced his hope that Zach would get the help he needed to be rehabilitated. Zach was given a chance – a "blended sentence" – and an opportunity to get out of that adult prison sentence.
Most of the folks who stop me to ask about Zach have expressed their support, and asked how Zach is doing.
I can report that Zach Neagle is doing well. I spent a little time with him a couple weeks ago just before Christmas. His case is pending – at some point he will go before a judge again to see when and how he might be released. His future is really in his own hands. If he works hard and does not pose a risk to himself or others the Judge may place Zach Neagle on probation and he may still avoid that adult prison sentence we feared could end his life.
He has grown up. He is taller and he looks great. And that fear that we had about him ending up a statistic seems more remote today than it did when he plead guilty to killing his father.
Juvenile cases are different. There are more opportunities to focus the case on rehabilitation and the people in the cases tend to focus their efforts at problem solving. Being the lawyer in cases involving kids is rewarding and frightening at the same time. Just how this one will end remains a question, but Zach Neagle has a chance to have a real life. He may yet return to his mother, his little brother and sister. He will return a very different man than the child who shot his dad.
If you have a question about a juvenile case, give me a call.