The family court judges were in different New Jersey counties, but the question prosecutors asked them was the same: Can we charge these male juveniles as adults on allegations of rape?
No, said both judges.
In the first case, Judge James Troiano in Monmouth County said a 16-year-old girl who accused a 16-year-old boy of sexually assaulting her - and filming it - at a pajama-themed party should have been told by prosecutors to consider the long-term damage to the boy before she decided to pursue criminal charges against him. GMC, as court documents identified the suspect, allegedly sent a text to his friends that read, "When your first time having sex was rape."
But the boy was college-bound, from a "good family" and an Eagle Scout, the judge said in his denial.
In the second case, Judge Marcia Silva in Middlesex County said a 16-year-old boy's alleged sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl was not "an especially heinous or cruel offense beyond the elements of the crimes that the waiver statute intends to target." Prosecutors say the teen suspect, identified as ERM in court documents, put on a condom and waited for the girl to return home from summer school, then held her down and penetrated her. She bled, then told police she ran to a friend's house.
Silva ruled that a teen boy carrying a condom did not rise to the level of being "calculated" or "premeditated," as the prosecutors had argued. She denied their request for a waiver.
But now, the appellate division of the Superior Court of New Jersey has overruled both decisions. In two scathing rulings filed last month, an appellate panel said that Silva and Troiano ignored the prosecution's discretion and essentially held bench trials in their respective cases, rather than neutrally considering whether prosecutors abused their power in asking for an adult court waiver.
The judges used their opinion of the evidence to justify their denial instead of assessing the case based on factors the law allows, the panel wrote, which include whether the prosecution considered all relevant factors, based their charging decision on irrelevant or inappropriate information or made their request based on a "clear error in judgment."
In each case, the two judges on the panel - Superior Court Judges Carmen Alvarez and Hany Mawla - ruled that the prosecution met those standards.
The decisions open the possibility for the cases of GMC and ERM to be moved from family court to a grand jury, where the teenagers would be treated as adults. The Monmouth County prosecutor's office, which is handling the case involving the two 16-year-olds, has not yet made a decision about what path it will take.
"While we have the utmost respect for the Family Court and the judge in this case, we are grateful that the Appellate Division agreed with our assessment that this case met the legal standards for waiver to Superior Court," prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni said in a statement. "As with all cases, we are assessing our next steps, which will include discussions with the victim and her family."
Middlesex County prosecutor Andrew Carey, whose office is handling the second case, said in a statement: "In a very small amount of cases, the right thing to do is to file a motion to waive a juvenile up to adult court. Prior to doing so, I consider all of the relevant factors extremely carefully."
Attorneys for the two teenagers facing charges did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Though the appeal decisions were issued in mid-June, details of the two cases only came to light this week when NJ.com and the New York Times reported on them.
The two cases sit inside a larger narrative that the country has grappled with in recent years about the criminal justice system and how it often places the burden of proof on victims of sexual assault rather than their alleged rapists. Again and again, victims advocates have taken on judges who they say prioritize the reputation of a promising young man over the trauma of a young woman.
The 16-year-old girl who attended the basement pajama party told her mom the morning after the alleged attack that she feared "sexual things" had happened and that she did not understand why her body was bruised and her clothes torn, according to court documents. Her family decided to pursue criminal charges several months after the alleged assault.
About 30 teens attended the party, where both the girl and GMC were intoxicated, prosecutors said. The girl had slurred speech and stumbled as she walked.
According to court documents, the two went into a closed-off, dark area. A group of boys sprayed the girl with Febreze and slapped her on the bottom so hard she found hand marks the next day.
Prosecutors said GMC used his cellphone to film himself assaulting the 16-year-old girl from behind. They said he later sent the video to friends and had sexually explicit conversations with them via text message.
In his ruling denying the waiver, Troiano dismissed GMC's alleged remarks as "just a 16-year-old kid saying stupid crap to his friends."
Of the teen boy's alleged behavior, the judge said: "Do I believe that it shows in any way a calculation or cruelty on his part or sophistication or a predatory nature? No, I do not."
The judge also questioned whether the girl was too drunk to remember anything. At least one friend who saw the video of the alleged assault, which was later deleted, said it showed the girl's head repeatedly hitting a wall, court documents said.
After the alleged assault, GMC's friends were concerned about the girl and alerted her friends, according to court documents. She vomited on the floor and was eventually driven home by a friend's mother.
In his waiver denial, Troiano said there is a difference between sexual assault and rape. "In my mind, there is a distinction," he said, according to the appeal. He recalled "traditional" rape cases that he believed were worthy of charging the juvenile defendant as an adult.
The judge defined "traditional" rape like this: "There were generally two or more generally males involved, either at gunpoint or weapon, clearly manhandling a person into... an area where... there was nobody around, sometime in an abandoned house, sometimes in an abandoned shed, shack, and just simply taking advantage of the person as well as beating the person, threatening the person."
Troiano said that in such cases "the factual scenarios themselves were so egregious, and it was those types of cases that the state felt the need to waive, and generally they were successful in their waiver."
The prosecutors appealed the judge's ruling on the grounds that he placed his judgment of the case's merits over that of the prosecutor.
The panel chastised the judge for using the juvenile's "good family" and educational test scores as reasons for his waiver ruling. "Whether or not the State can prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt is a question best left to another day," the judges wrote.
The panel made similar arguments in the case of the 12-year-old girl who was allegedly assaulted by 16-year-old ERM. After school one day when the child walked into a home that her family shared with ERM's family, he followed her inside, according to court documents, and forced himself upon the girl.
She told him "no," prosecutors said, repeatedly tried to push him off and tried biting him.
Months later, the child's mother learned of the alleged assault from a relative. The teen was charged, and prosecutors requested he be tried as an adult.
But the judge, Silva, rejected the waiver and said it was the job of the juvenile court to rehab young offenders. She said the use of a condom did not constitute premeditation and that she did not understand why the prosecution had disregarded the teen's explanation that the girl gave consent.
In overturning Silva's ruling, the appellate panel said Silva - like Troiano - substituted her judgment "for that of the prosecutor." The panel also said Silva minimized the harm "wrought on a 12-year-old child by ERM assuming her claims are true."
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)