DENVER – Denver prosecutors have filed adult murder charges against 16-year-old Jennie Bunsom in the death of her 7-year-old nephew, Jordan Vong, but it will likely be up to a judge to decide whether the case belongs in adult or juvenile court.
The Denver District Attorney’s Office made the decision to direct file her charges for two counts of first degree murder in Denver District Court, but because Bunsom is a juvenile, the teen and her attorney can what’s known as a reverse transfer hearing within 10 days of her first appearance.
Colorado juveniles who are charged with adult crimes in district courts are given the opportunity to challenge a district attorney’s decision to file adult charges due to a change in state law made in 2012. It allows juveniles to request a hearing, or essentially a mini-trial, where a judge is asked to weigh their emotional and mental well-being in order to determine whether the case should stay in adult court or be ordered back to juvenile court.
"The law was passed for good reason, in my view, and that is an acknowledgement by the scientific community of years of research that suggests a juvenile brain is different and less mature than an adult brain. Therefore, juveniles no matter how heinous the crime the commit should be treated differently because there’s a great likelihood they can be rehabilitated,” explained Denver criminal defense attorney Dan Recht.
As of Tuesday morning, Bunsom was set to be represented by an attorney from the state public defender’s office, court officials told Denver7, but no attorney had yet been identified.
As such, it’s unknown whether Bunsom and her attorney will request a reverse-transfer hearing, though legal experts told Denver7 Tuesday it would be unlikely the attorney would not ask for one to take place.
“It’s an opportunity for the defense to say, ‘Judge, you have to look at this independently because there are all of these factors that suggest that this child, the 16-year-old which is considered a child under law, should be tried in juvenile court and not adult court,” said Recht.
According to the Colorado Office of Legislative Legal Services, the judge at the reverse-transfer hearing would have to find that “the juvenile and community would be better served by juvenile proceedings” in order to order the case back to juvenile court.
But there is another facet to the direct filing of the case as well. Should it proceed to a preliminary hearing in adult court and a judge finds there is not probable cause to continue pursuing the filed charges, the court can remand the case back to juvenile court, according to OLLS.
“The judge is told very specifically to look at the mental state of the 16-year-old, her emotional state and her psychological state,” Recht said. “You can anticipate that the defense will put this 16-year-old through a whole battery of tests with psychologists to try to show the judge that she’s very disturbed emotionally and she needs help.”
Other cases in Colorado in which similar reverse-transfer hearings were either held or scheduled include the Mountain Vista High School threat cases and the Jessica Ridgeway murder case.
Bunsom is scheduled to appear in Denver District Court on Thursday at 8:30 a.m.
Denver7's Blair Miller contributed to this report.