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Jonathan Rowles, the East Naples teen held criminally responsible in the August 2010 shooting death of his mother, will serve at least six months in a moderate-risk juvenile justice facility, a sentence that seeks to balance public protection and Rowles' significant mental health needs.
With Rowles, 15, and several of the teen's relatives on hand, Collier Circuit Judge Ramiro Manalich handed down the sentence Tuesday, about one month after Rowles was found delinquent, the juvenile equivalent of guilty, of manslaughter. Rowles was 13 when he loaded a rifle, sneaked behind his 39-year-old mother Kelly Ann and pulled the trigger, fatally shooting her.
Rowles has called the shooting accidental, saying he believed the safety was on. No evidence has been presented to refute him, but Manalich said Rowles' recklessness and negligence met the legal standard of manslaughter.
Manalich said he sought to accomplish two primary objectives — maintaining public safety and putting Rowles in a location to receive intensive therapy — and a lesser task of punishment. He noted two mental health professionals indicated Rowles didn't display dangerously antisocial behaviors more often associated with repeat violent offenders, though one expert wrote Rowles "presents with emotional coldness."
"With the appropriate therapy and the kind of family and mentor support Jonathan has, I think he can restore a productive and bright future," Manalich said.
Rowles' lawyers asked Manalich to keep the teen out of a residential facility, arguing a family and community support system, along with local counseling, could better serve Rowles' rehabilitation.
"I believe that sending him to a program … would create a downward spiral," said Rowles' assistant public defender, Justin Barger.
Prosecutors wanted Rowles placed in a maximum-risk facility, the most restrictive of four settings, for 18 to 36 months, but no spots were available for Rowles in the two available facilities. They settled on requesting a minimum year-long commitment to a moderate-risk facility.
Ultimately, Manalich said Rowles needed more intensive mental health help than what's available in Collier County.
"We believe (counseling) needed to be done outside the community, and that's going to happen," assistant state attorney Tammy Wilson said. "Let's just hope it's for a long enough period of time."
Rowles, tall and stocky, wearing a light blue shirt and black pants Tuesday, didn't speak at length during any of his court hearings. Barger declined to take questions after the sentencing.
Tuesday's hearing provided the deepest insight yet into Rowles' mental health, his daily life since the shooting and his counseling needs.
Except for a few instances of bullying at his former alternative school, Rowles hasn't had any further run-ins with authority, witnesses said. Two to four times a month, he attends counseling sessions at the David Lawrence Center. Several family members and fellow members of the Jehovah's Witnesses sent letters of support for Rowles, often calling him a "gentle giant" on a spiritual path.
Rowles works several days each week at Bikes For Tykes, a Naples-based charity. The organization's founder, Skip Riffle, testified Tuesday he mentors Rowles and finds the teen to be "nothing but a gentleman."
Two mental health professionals who evaluated Rowles — one from the defense, one from the prosecution — both found Rowles has significant impulse control issues but quibbled over whether he suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The prosecution's expert found Rowles displays "a passive reaction to the point of denial in regards to the significant events that he's experiencing," according to an evaluation Wilson read Tuesday.
But perhaps most notably for public safety, none of the testimony indicated Rowles fits into the typology created by University of South Florida professor Kathleen Heide, a renowned expert on children who kill parents. Heide said such violent adolescents are typically classified as "severely abused," "severely mentally ill" and "dangerously antisocial."
"There are homicides that happen by accident and are due to reckless behavior, so that's certainly a possibility in the case of an adolescent who kills a parent," Heide said.
Heide said her research, which has focused on adolescents presenting more serious mental health issues than Rowles, shows juveniles who commit homicides very rarely kill again. Intensive mental health counseling typically reduces the chance of recidivism among juveniles who kill parents, Heide said.
"If they don't get the treatment and aftercare and supervision they need, then the likelihood that they'll make a successful outcome is questionable" Heide said.
After six months in a facility, Rowles will be back in court, where DJJ officials will make a recommendation about his future. It's possible Rowles could be held for more than six months.
"He's not a healed person," said Collier sheriff's Cpl. John Wohlbrandt, who spoke as a witness for the prosecution. "I don't think he's malicious. I don't think he's evil. But I think he's a person who needs a lot of counseling and a lot of help."