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Judge rules teen charged in fatal fire to be tried as juvenile

KENTON — The case of a Kenton teenager accused of killing his stepfather in a 2009 fire will remain in the juvenile court system, Judge James Rapp has ruled in Hardin County Common Pleas Court.

The teen, identified as JM, was 14 years old when a fire on Walnut Street in Kenton took the life of Gary Wells. JM’s mother and brother narrowly escaped the fatal fire. The teenager called the Kenton Fire Department from a foster home in Kentucky nearly three years later and confessed to starting the fire.

JM turns 18 in November. Prosecutor Brad Bailey filed legal action against the youth, whose identity remains JM by court order, to be tried as an adult for the crimes of murder, attempted murder and aggravated arson.

Rapp heard the case and issued his findings late last week.

According to testimony in the previous hearings, JM came from a difficult family environment, Rapp noted in his decision, finding situations of extreme neglect, abandonment, abuse and substance abuse by JM’s mother, which resulted in the teenager becoming “very street smart” and “manipulative.”

“None of this abuse and neglect justifies or excuses setting a house fire,” continued Rapp.

But in reaching his decision to continue the case in juvenile court, Rapp also notes the teenager’s responsibility for the crimes he is charged with has not yet been determined in court. Rapp writes in his opinion, witnesses heard in the hearings placed JM at different places when the fire was allegedly started. These testimonies “create reasonable doubt as to the prosecution’s case, the child may be acquitted of all charges in spite of an alleged confession,” writes the judge.

In weighing his decision, Rapp continues, he relied in part on the testimony of a therapist who said JM was emotionally immature and would have “a difficult time in an adult prison.”

He also considered another expert witness’ testimony which said the teen has “at least a moderate probability of positively responding to treatment within the juvenile justice system.”

If convicted of the crimes through the juvenile justice system, JM would have just three years to respond to treatment prior to being released in November 2016.

Rapp also said JM has made progress in treatment while being held in the Logan County Juvenile Detention Center and the treatment the teen would receive in the adult prison system would “compare very poorly to the breadth and intensity of the counseling regimen” in a juvenile facility.

Bailey said there will be no appeal of this Rapp decision.

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