A judge ruled on Monday that Christian Aaron Steffens, 17, will be tried as a juvenile, and not as an adult, for the slaying of Robert James Elliott, 18, last Sept. 8 on a Dana Point beach.
When Juvenile Court Judge Robert B. Hutson announced his decision, Cynthia Steffens, the youth’s mother, burst into tears and put her head against her father. Relatives of Elliott appeared stunned and declined to comment on the decision.
Steffens’ attorney, Deputy Public Defender Marri Derby, had argued that her client only fired the shot because he was being chased on the beach by Elliott and was in fear of his life. Hutson, in his ruling, said he agreed that an argument could be made that Steffens shot because he was “in fear of being beaten and advanced upon” by Elliott.
Elliott was not armed, and the prosecution had argued that there were “elements of first-degree murder” to the slaying.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Bernadette Cemore said outside of court that she strongly disagrees with the judge’s decision. “I don’t have a quarrel with Judge Hutson, but I think that the message he’s sending about this kind of violence among kids on the beach may be the wrong message--that you can take a loaded gun to the beach and shoot somebody and you won’t be dealt with very seriously,” the prosecutor said.
“I think that with the problems they’ve had in Dana Point, and which appear to be quite frequent, I don’t think that’s the message we want to send to young kids.” The judge’s decision means that Steffens, if convicted, cannot be incarcerated beyond the age of 25. If tried and convicted as an adult, Steffens could have received up to life imprisonment.
Hutson emphasized that his ruling does not indicate in any way whether Steffens is guilty or innocent. The judge said the issue before the court was simply whether Steffens should be tried as a juvenile.
Hutson set Steffens’ trial for March 11 in Juvenile Court. Under court procedures, another judge will preside at that trial. In Juvenile Court, there are no juries and the evidence is decided by the judge.
In her closing arguments, Cemore repeatedly referred to a document written by Steffens that police found in his bedroom after the shooting. That message read in part: “Every time you come to (the) Strands, we will find you and shoot you. If we don’t find you, we will tweek your truck and (obscenity) it up real bad.”
According to court testimony, Steffens told a friend that he had deliberately broken Elliott’s pickup truck window with a baseball bat about three weeks before the fatal shooting. Elliott was seeking payment for that broken window when he confronted Steffens on the beach, according to the testimony.