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COLLIER COUNTY — A Collier judge has found 15-year-old Jonathan Rowles delinquent, the juvenile equivalent of guilty, on a single charge of manslaughter in the shooting death of his mother.
Collier Circuit Judge Ramiro Mañalich issued the ruling this afternoon, nearly a month after Rowles' trial wrapped up.
Prosecutors said Rowles shot and killed his mother in August 2010, pulling the trigger of a .22 caliber rifle as he pointed the weapon at her from behind in their East Naples home. In an interview with detectives after the shooting, Rowles called the shooting an accident. His defense maintained Rowles' account and questioned the validity of tests done on the rifle after a part went missing for 45 days.
To prove manslaughter, prosecutors had to prove Rowles intentionally committed the acts that led to his mother's death, or show that Rowles knew, or reasonably should have known, his actions could lead to death or great bodily harm. Prosecutors argued Rowles knew the potential consequences of pointing a loaded weapon at his mother.
Department of Juvenile Justice officials will now evaluate Rowles, looking into his mental health and educational needs, his family background and several other aspects of his life. They will then issue a recommendation for disposition, the juvenile equivalent of sentencing.
Juvenile manslaughter dispositions in Florida have typically involved time, generally several months, at a residential facility run by DJJ contractors. Mañalich has final say over Rowles' disposition, with options including probation, community supervision or placement at a residential facility.
Editor's note: This story has been clarified to reflect the elements of manslaughter.
How Jonathan Rowles lives the remainder of his teenage years hinges on a judge's decision this afternoon.
Rowles, 15, could leave Collier Circuit Judge Ramiro Mañalich's third-floor courtroom free of the juvenile justice system, cleared in the shooting death of his mother, Kelly Ann, 39.
Or Rowles could become one of the few Florida teens found delinquent — the juvenile equivalent of guilty — of manslaughter, which could lead to his placement in a residential facility away from his Collier County home.
Nearly two and a half years after the shooting, Rowles will learn his fate around 3:30 p.m., either ending the prosecution of him or launching an evaluation process that will determine his disposition, the juvenile version of sentencing. While the teen doesn't face prison time — the juvenile system focuses on rehabilitation, rather than punishment — a delinquency finding could affect Rowles for several years.
The rarity of juvenile manslaughter convictions makes it difficult to predict Rowles' future if found delinquent. Only two Florida youths were charged with it in fiscal 2011-12, DJJ officials said. Several disposition options are also available.
"The recommendation could range from probation to commitment to a non-residential program (such as a day treatment program in the youth's community) or a residential program," DJJ spokesman C.J. Drake said in an email.
But a cursory search of juvenile manslaughter cases over the past 15 years shows most teens found delinquent on manslaughter charges were sent to residential facilities, the most serious consequence at the DJJ's disposal. In those cases, time spent in a facility ranged from several months to a few years.
If found delinquent and placed in a residential facility, Rowles would be released no later than age 22. If given probation, he would be off it by his 19th birthday. At age 24 or 26, his record likely would be expunged.
At December's four-day trial, prosecutors and Rowles' defense presented differing takes on the August 2010 shooting.
Prosecutors said the then-13-year-old loaded a .22 caliber rifle, snuck behind his mother, took aim at her through a narrow entryway and pulled the trigger — all while conscious of what could happen if he pointed a loaded weapon at her. Rowles has called the shooting an accident, and the teen's lawyers have questioned the reliability of tests performed on the rifle after a part went missing for 45 days.
Mañalich could find Rowles delinquent if he believes Rowles intentionally committed the acts that led to his mother's death; or the teen knew, or reasonably should have known, his actions could lead to death or great bodily harm.
If Mañalich finds neither, the teen walks free. But if he finds Rowles delinquent, DJJ officials will be dispatched to evaluate the teen and make a disposition recommendation.
"It's basically a history of the kid, how he does in school, his home life and stuff like that," said Lee Hollander, a Naples lawyer who often handles juvenile cases. He is not familiar with the details of Rowles' case.
While specifics about Rowles' upbringing and mental health are scarce, some facts indicate the assessment process could be complicated if needed.
No proof has been publicly disclosed that Rowles intentionally shot his mother. He struggled at school, lagging behind in reading and getting in fights that led to his move to an alternative school. His father, Christopher, was arrested in March 2012 and charged with molesting a teenage girl. Since then, his only contact with a parent has been through a jail visitation screen, averaging about one meeting a week, jail records show.
While Mañalich has final say about disposition, the recommendation of DJJ officials often stands, Hollander said.
"The court has to have what I'll call especially good reasons to override the recommendation," Hollander said. "I've only seen it happen once in a great while."