A 15-year-old accused of suffocating his sister and her friend is competent to stand trial in adult court, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Capping two days of often-dramatic testimony in Walla Walla County Superior Court, visiting Judge Philip Raekes said Daniel Betournay appeared sophisticated and mature enough to satisfy legal guidelines for being treated as an adult.
“This is indeed a sad day for the parents, for Mr. Betournay himself and for the community,” Raekes said. “But I think the protection of the community demands that Mr. Betournay be tried in adult court.”
The ruling means Betournay faces a possible prison sentence well beyond the age of 21, the latest he would have been released if convicted as a juvenile. Now, he could be sentenced to 40 to 52 years in prison.
Probation and mental health officials described Betournay as unrepentant about the murders, to which he reportedly has confessed, but he cried as deputies led him to the county jail. He had been held in juvenile facilities since the Dec. 14 murders.
The ruling also drew tears from Betournay’s mother and an exhausted Deputy Prosecutor Joseph Golden.
His parents, Jim and Judy Betournay, declined to comment, as did his two court-appointed attorneys.
Duane Garbe, whose daughter Beth was killed with April Betournay, said only: “It’s not over.”
Authorities say Betournay confessed to killing the two 14-year-old girls by binding their hands and feet with duct tape and taping plastic bags over their heads when they went to the Betournay residence after school.
While Betournay said he left the house soon after putting the bags over the girls’ heads, Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Humphreys said the position of their bodies suggested they were put side by side after they died.
Golden argued that Betournay planned to kill the girls and such willfulness and viciousness fit several key criteria for trying him as an adult.
“These girls suffocated to death and the evidence suggests Mr. Betournay watched this happen,” Golden said.
Defense attorney James Barrett cited Betournay’s low academic and IQ test scores as evidence he was unsophisticated. He pointed to letters saying he was a passive Boy Scout who mediated disagreements between Cub Scouts he mentored, suggesting his violent outburst was “almost as if there were a blip on the radar screen.”
Humphreys said several schoolmates reported hearing Betournay talk about killing somebody, including an unnamed first-period teacher.
But Betournay’s attorneys argued that, while he talked of killing neighbors and family members, he also talked of abandoning the effort to kill his sister and her friend as he was tying them up.
Defense Attorney Michael Mitchell asked Humphreys to read from a transcript of Betournay’s confession in which he talked about returning items taken from his father’s dresser on the day of the murders.
“But I didn’t want to get in trouble for being in my dad’s closet and stuff,” he added. “So I just went ahead and did everything …”
While it is unclear what mental problems prompted Betournay to suffocate the girls, a state psychologist testified earlier Wednesday that he is clearly fit to stand trial.
Steven Marquez, a staff psychologist at the Child Study and Treatment Center in Tacoma, said Betournay suffers from an unspecified psychosis and possibly schizophrenia or structural damage to his brain and central nervous system.
At one point Betournay thought another youth at the center could read his mind, Marquez said.
“We’re seeing things that tell us that whatever this mental illness is, we’re not really sure,” Marquez said.
“Only time is going to tell how it emerges.”
However, Marquez said he evaluated Betournay chiefly for his competence to stand trial. On that score, Betournay has a rational understanding of court procedures and the roles of witnesses and lawyers, he said. He can help his attorney, he said.
Tests put Betournay’s IQ at 88, “just in the low-average area - respectable,” Marquez said. His basic academic skills were at the fifthgrade level in spelling and arithmetic and the seventh-grade level in reading.