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FAIRFIELD — A psychologist said one of the teens accused in the killing of their Fairfield High School Spanish teacher is a different person now than he was in November, when the murder happened, because of the rapid brain development that occurs in adolescents.
Craig Rypma, a clinical psychologist who owns Counseling & Assessment Services in Des Moines, said during a Friday court hearing brain development in teens is significant because it affects an adolescent’s decision-making, empathy and knowing right from wrong — traits that evolve as adolescents mature.
Willard Chaiden Noble Miller, 16, who was referred to as “Chaiden” during the hearing, is “ripe for change now,” Rypma said.
If Miller’s murder case is moved to juvenile court, he could receive treatment and programming needed to help him develop those traits while he is most adaptable to behavior change, the psychologist testified.
Miller’s attorneys are seeking to have his case transferred from district — adult — court to juvenile court, where he would face lesser charges and penalties if convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit a forcible felony.
Jeremy Goodale, 17, the other teen charged in the Nov. 3 slaying of teacher Nohema Graber, 66, also asked the court to move his case to juvenile court late last month.
Eighth Judicial District Judge Shawn Showers is to make written rulings on their petitions.
The two teens are accused of killing Graber with a baseball bat and concealing her body under a tarp, wheelbarrow and railroad ties in Chautauqua Park in Fairfield, according to court documents.
Rypma said he conducted a two-hour-plus forensic interview with Miller, who turns 17 on Aug. 9. He said he reviewed a juvenile court officer’s report and criminal complaints and minutes of testimony in this case.
He said he did not test Miller’s cognitive abilities but said school records showed Miller had a grade-point average of 2.84 and was ranked 65th out of 217 students.
The psychologist found Miller to be kind, with “age- appropriate compassionate behavior.” He said Miller commented that Graber’s slaying was ‘“awful and shouldn’t have happened.”
Rypma also found the teen impressionable, easily persuaded by others and more of a follower than a leader. Statements made by others — who provided letters to the court at the hearing — seemed to confirm that opinion, Rypma said.
Miller, he said, would benefit from juvenile court services and treatment based on his brain development and having no history of anti-social behavior or being in juvenile court. His potential for rehabilitation is right now, he said, adding that treatment in prison would be delayed until closer to his release.
Rypma said changes in the brain occur rapidly between ages 12 and 18 and continues to improve at ages 21 through 22. He believes the time for optimum change is 16 to 18 or 19 years of age.
The psychologist said he is aware of waiting lists for juvenile court treatment in Iowa but that the ideal rehabilitation time for Miller is six months to a year, which would be possible at the state training school for adolescent boys.
On cross-examination, Rypma admitted he had never given a recommendation in court for sending a teen to adult court. He said he’s recommended that before but that defense attorneys in those cases did not call him to testify.
Assistant Jefferson County Attorney Patrick McAvan asked if Rypma understood any rehabilitation wouldn’t start in the juvenile system until after Miller was convicted and that would limit the time for services.
Rypma said he didn’t formulate a treatment plan for Miller and doesn’t know how long rehabilitation would take. However, he said he didn’t believe an adolescent who committed “one act” would need a lengthy rehabilitation period — possibly six months.
Karen Dennler, an 8th Judicial District juvenile court officer, testified Friday and recommended Miller stay in adult court because there isn’t enough time to rehabilitate Miller before he turns 18.
The waiting list for juvenile court assessment, which must be conducted after a conviction and before treatment starts, is into August. Staffing and space for placement has been affected by the pandemic, she said.
Dennler said she didn’t interview Miller because his attorneys declined an interview.
But she said she obtained a release from Fairfield High and learned Miller only had one discipline report, which she found interesting because it involved Miller having a cellphone in Graber’s Spanish class.
Any other option for Miller, outside the training school, takes some “hoops” to jump through, she said.
Other facilities might not take him, and out-of-state placement, which the defense has suggested, was even more difficult and requires approval from the Iowa Department of Human Services, which would pay for the treatment.
Not a ‘villain’
Christine Branstad, Miller’s lawyer, argued there would be enough time for rehabilitation based on Rypma’s opinion.
She also pointed out reference letters submitted to the court that seem to show his behavior in November is indicative of something going wrong, not ongoing behavior.
She cited letters saying Miller is kind, affectionate, friendly, earnest and polite. One person said Miller had given his hamster to a 4-year-old who babysat the rodent and became attached, so Miller gave it to him. Another letter was from a father of a girl Miller dated, who said Miller respected her boundaries and was a “good first boyfriend,” Branstad said.
The portrayal of Miller as a “villain” goes against everything his family and others have said, she said.
Jefferson County Attorney Chauncey Moulding argued Graber’s slaying was a “brutal murder” — a premeditated act — that the court should consider in its decision.
He noted the juvenile court officer’s statement there are no reasonable prospects for rehabilitation before Miller turns 18.
Rypma made the comment that the community will “lose out” — on a member of society — if Miller is sent to prison, but Moulding argued the community already has suffered a loss in the death of Graber.
Moulding said the justice system already has provisions in place that take into account brain development.
A person who commits a forcible felony, such as murder, will be charged in adult court if 16 or 17 years of age but cannot be sentenced to life without parole if convicted, as an adult would be. Young offenders are eligible for parole, he said, on “day 1.”
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