ROSWELL, N.M. (KRQE) – The New Mexico criminal justice system is going to struggle with Mason Campbell.
Authorities say the 12-year-old seventh grader walked into Berrendo Middle School in Roswell early Tuesday and fired three shots in a crowded gymnasium before classes started.
Bird shot from a 20-gauge shotgun Campbell had smuggled into the school in a duffel bag struck an 11-year-old boy in the face, authorities say, critically injuring him. Kendal Sanders, 13, also was struck. Both children are expected to survive.
Authorities believe the children weren’t specifically targeted, but that Campbell had planned an attack at the school.
Campbell has been charged with three counts of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon — third degree felonies.
While investigators comb through evidence to try and find out why the boy allegedly fired the shots, the justice system, more broadly, will face the difficult task of what to do next with the 12-year-old suspect.
That’s because New Mexico law doesn’t allow prosecutors to try children younger than the age of 14 as adults, regardless of what charges they’re facing.
“It’s a very difficult situation,” said Rick Tedrow, 11th Judicial District Attorney and president of the New Mexico District Attorneys Association.
There’s a balance to strike, Tedrow said, between justice for the community and for the victims — and what’s right for the child who’s accused.
Jeff Buckels of the state Public Defender’s Office, and a veteran of cases involving juvenile suspects, said that balance is clearly defined in state law.
“There can be no question that in the juvenile system, especially when we’re talking about someone under 14, the balance is struck, let’s face it, in favor in some ways of the child as opposed to strict justice,” Buckels told KRQE News 13.
State law does allow prosecutors to try children 14 and older, in certain instances such as murder cases, as adults.
New Mexico has seen its share of those kinds of cases.
For example, last summer, 15-year-old Nehemiah Griego shot and killed five family members in their South Valley home, according to authorities.
And in 2004, Cody Posey then 14, killed his father, stepmother and stepsister on newsman Sam Donaldson’s southern New Mexico ranch.
Posey was convicted of first-degree murder, second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. He was locked up in a juvenile detention center, where he remained until he turned 21.
But there’s something that sets Mason Campbell apart in the eyes of the law: He is only 12 years old. Buckels described cases involving such violent allegations against someone so young as “incredibly rare.”
“This is a child,” he said. “They simply cannot be held responsible for even the most serious of crimes the way people above 14 are.”
That means the law has different priorities.
Tedrow said rehabilitation moves to the front of the line, and punishment takes something of a back seat.
“When an adult is being prosecuted, an adult being sentenced, you’re looking at punishment for the act for the adult,” he said.
For children younger than 14, it’s more about paving the way for a second chance.
“Rehabilitation, under our code, takes the number one precedent,” Tedrow said. “And that does sometimes cause problem for prosecution of cases especially in situations you may have such a heinous crime committed.”
There’s still a determination of guilt or innocence to be made. And if the system finds Campbell guilty of the third-degree felonies, he could be locked up until his 21st birthday. That would be the maximum penalty.
There is, however, a more likely scenario.
“At the age of 12, 11, even younger, there’s always a possibility that someone may never see incarceration or detention — period,” Tedrow said.
Before the gears of the legal system even begin to turn, there are other questions to be answered.
A judge has ordered an evaluation and mental health treatment for Campbell, according to a statement released Wednesday by Bob Gorrence, the boy’s attorney.
The statement continued: “As a family we will cooperate in all ways with law enforcement to piece together how this awful tragedy occurred. We have confidence in our capable southern New Mexico law enforcement, the District Attorney, and our Judges. We pray also for each of them as they undertake their hard work and investigative efforts.”
New Mexico does have some, albeit limited, experience with a child younger than 14 being accused of a high-profile violent crime.
Benjamin Hilburn was 10 when authorities say he shot and killed his father. That was in 2009.
There have been numerous delays in that case as prosecutors and defense attorneys have argued over evidence, witnesses and how the system should treat a child suspect.
In August, that case was put on hold indefinitely.