Twin teenage girls a few months shy of their 18th birthdays, who authorities say kidnapped and tortured two men, originally were charged as adults. But a new law has sent their case to juvenile court, at least for now.
Proposition 57, a ballot measure approved by California voters in November, increased parole and good behavior opportunities for nonviolent adult offenders, but it also shifted the authority to try a juvenile as an adult from the prosecutor to the judge.
Prosecutors since 2000 could “direct file” on minors, charging them as adults for certain violent crimes. That decision now must be made by a judge who considers five criteria including the seriousness of the offense and its impact on the victim or the victim’s family, the suspect’s criminal history and their past attempts at rehabilitation.
Authorities say Brittany and Tiffany McKinney preyed on lonely or mentally deficient men and extorted money from them.
They are accused of kidnapping, beating and robbing two men. Brittany met one on a dating app and Tiffany reconnected with the other – they knew each other from school – after he messaged her on Facebook.
The twins were arrested and charged as adults in August. But their cases are among 22 in the county that were put on hold with the passage of Proposition 57.
The law was silent on whether it should be retroactive, said Deputy District Attorney Jared Carrillo.
Generally, he said, if a statute does not address retroactivity it is not retroactive. But defendants who were minors at the time of the crime have appealed their cases in hopes of reducing their sentences. Three appellate courts have issued opinions that the law should not be retroactive for those who had already been tried and convicted prior to Proposition 57 but it should be for those cases still in limbo, Carrillo said.
Those who had been charged but not tried and convicted are entitled to a “transfer hearing” to decide whether the case will stay in adult court or be prosecuted in juvenile court.
People convicted in juvenile court usually spend far less time behind bars. For example, a conviction for first degree murder comes with a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison. But a person convicted of murder in the juvenile system only serves as much time as they have before turning 25, the maximum age the offender can stay in the Division of Juvenile Justice, prison for juvenile offenders.
Proponents of Proposition 57 say it is best if minors remain in the juvenile system where they have better access to rehabilitative services and more opportunity to remain local.
“When youths are allowed to stay in juvenile court they are able to be sentenced to a wider variety of services that actually address the underlying cause of their offense,” said Erica Webster, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
“The other issue is that when you are charged in juvenile court you are eligible for record sealing and there are greater securities in place to make sure young people are given a second chance and face fewer collateral consequences than when you are convicted in adult court,” she said.
Among the cases
The 22 cases that were in limbo in Stanislaus County include eight defendants charged with murder as well as defendants charged with attempted murder, child molestation, rape, sodomy, kidnapping and home invasion robbery.
Carrillo said of those 22 cases five have been resolved. Three were resolved through agreements between the prosecutor and the defense attorney and signed off by the juvenile court judge, Ruben Villalobos. Two of those – both homicides – went back to adult court and the other – a defendant charged with two counts with assault likely to produce great bodily injury – stayed in juvenile court.
Two transfer hearings have been completed. A child molestation case stayed in juvenile court and a home invasion robbery and attempted carjacking case went back to adult court.
The McKinney case is one of 17 cases involving juveniles still awaiting transfer hearings in juvenile court but the case is moving forward for their co-defendant, Sergio Valdez, who was 22 at the time of the crime.
He is being tried separately and in March was held to answer on the charges of kidnapping for the purpose of extortion and intimidating or dissuading a victim from reporting a crime.
The preliminary hearing provided insight into Tiffany and Brittany McKinney’s role of allegedly orchestrating the crime and acting as the primary aggressors.
Victims testified at hearing
The two victims, Paul and Jorge, whose last names are being withheld to protect their identities, testified at the hearing.
Paul testified that during a weekend in late March 2016, he hung out with the twins, Valdez, Jorge and another man.
He said the twins became violent when, at the end of the weekend, he said he needed to go home because he had to work Monday morning.
He said they both hit him and forced him into a car. Inside the car they hit him more, spit on him, tried to break his fingers, and shot him in the eye with a BB gun, according to the transcript. They also took money out of his wallet and his cell phone.
They drove from Ceres to Riverbank where they were pulled over by a deputy because four of them, including Paul, were in the backseat.
“Sergio told me that if I said anything (to the deputy) he would gut me and my family,” Paul testified. “Brittany and Tiffany both said not to say anything, or they would find me because they’ve done this before, they said.”
Paul testified he told the deputy when asked about the injuries on his face that he sustained them during a fall and that he was okay.
The deputy let them go. Paul was forced to stay with the suspects for several more hours as they drove to Milton, east of Stockton, then back to Modesto where they took him to a hospital early the next morning.
It was Jorge’s car that they were driving around in; he would drive most of the time but sometimes Brittany or Tiffany McKinney or Valdez would take over without asking him. Jorge testified that Tiffany McKinney and Valdez left the hospital in his car at one point and returned an hour later to pick up him and Brittany McKinney.
“They came back … happy, like they’re happy,” Jorge testified. “Like nothing happened.”
Jorge testified he was scared of the twins.
They left Paul at the hospital and Jorge became their new victim. He said he was afraid they would hurt him or his family, that they had threatened to kill him, so he did what they said.
In the ensuing four days he drove them hundreds of miles, he bought them a TV and a futon and put it together for them at their Modesto home and he barely slept, according to testimony.
The twins became violent later in the week. They hit him and shot him multiple times with the BB gun.
Asked during the hearing how many times he was shot Jorge said, “I don’t know. It was a lot. One of them – one of the BBs got into my head … And I remember then nearly passing out.”
Later that day, on another trip to Milton, Jorge said he tried to prevent Tiffany McKinney from driving his car because she had been drinking.
He said she and her sister dragged him out of the car and started assaulting him.
“They both started punching me, kicking me, stomping me,” Jorge testified. “Practically trying to beat me to death.”
The next day they took him to his place of work, Foster Farms in Turlock, where they picked up his paycheck and took him to the bank. He said he withdrew $300 or $400 and gave it to them.
District Attorney’s Office Investigator Rich Delgado testified about his interview with Valdez when he arrested him. “We discussed the girls and how they were manipulating Jorge and preying on people that were mentally deficient or lonely,” he said.
Added court workload
One of the five criteria Villalobos must consider is a defendant’s opportunity to rehabilitate in the juvenile system before jurisdiction there ends, typically when the defendant turns 18.
Brittany and Tiffany turned 19 in May and were transferred from Juvenile Hall to the county jail.
The majority of the 22 defendants in limbo when Proposition 57 passed are now well over 18 years old. Some are in their late 20s.
Kevin Tubbs, one of two murder defendants who agreed to having his case stay in criminal court, is 27. He was 17 in March 2008 when he and three others were arrested for the beating death of a man in a Modesto parking lot. After agreeing to remain in adult court, Tubbs pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and is scheduled to be sentenced in July.
Villalobos said the transfer hearings usually take a few days and require a lot of testimony and evidence.
“Proposition 57 created a tremendous new workload over at juvenile hall,” he said. “It basically creates a separate tier that has to be addressed for these cases that were holdovers.”
He is the only juvenile delinquency court judge in the county and Carrillo is the only juvenile prosecutor. There are two public defenders assigned to juvenile court.
Villalobos expects to hear and make decisions on all those holdover cases by next year.