A judge on Thursday denied a bid by a 16-year-old boy to be tried as a juvenile, rather than an adult, on an aggravated mayhem charge for allegedly setting a skirt-wearing teenager's clothing on fire on an AC Transit bus in November.
William DuBois, the attorney for Richard Thomas, argued that it would be cruel and unusual punishment for Thomas to face a potential life sentence if he is convicted in connection with the alleged attack on 18-year-old Sasha Fleischman on a bus in Oakland in November.
But Judge J. Richard Couzens said at a hearing in Alameda County Superior Court that the district attorney's office acted within its rights to directly charge Thomas as an adult and that it would be "premature" to rule at this time that the teen faces cruel and unusual punishment because his trial hasn't yet been held.
DuBois said after the hearing that Couzens' ruling leaves open the possibility that Thomas could still seek to be sentenced as a juvenile and get a shorter prison term if he is convicted.
"I am optimistic that we would prevail at that time," DuBois said.
Sasha, a student at Maybeck High School in Berkeley who doesn't identify as either male or female, suffered second- and third-degree burns in the incident. Sasha's clothing was lit on fire as the teen slept in the back of an AC Transit bus as it traveled near MacArthur Boulevard and Ardley Avenue at about 5:20 p.m. on Nov. 4.
Sasha was treated at the burn unit at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco for three weeks but was released the day before Thanksgiving and returned to school the following week.
In addition to aggravated mayhem, Thomas is charged with assault and hate crime clauses.
DuBois previously said that video footage from the bus clearly shows Thomas lighting Sasha's clothing on fire, but there are still questions about the circumstances and Thomas' state of mind at the time.
DuBois said Thomas only intended to carry out a prank in which there would only be a small puff of smoke, and was "mortified" when Sasha became engulfed in flames.
The defense attorney said it would be more appropriate for Thomas to be prosecuted in juvenile court instead of adult court because he would face a lighter penalty and have a better chance of getting rehabilitated.
But prosecutor Armando Patran said the decision to charge Thomas as an adult was "not arrived at lightly" and was permitted under the law.
Couzens said he agrees, and he will "yield" to prior court rulings that allow juveniles to be charged as adults in some serious cases.
Couzens said there is a separate issue of whether Thomas could claim cruel or unusual punishment if he is sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted, but the judge said that is not a relevant issue because Thomas would still have the possibility of being paroled even if he is convicted of aggravated mayhem.
DuBois argued that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in recent cases that some minors should be prosecuted in juvenile court instead of adult court, but Couzens said those rulings apply only to cases involving charges of capital crimes like murder, not other charges such as mayhem.
Thomas, who is being housed at the Alameda County Juvenile Hall in San Leandro, is scheduled to return to court on Jan. 23 to enter a plea and have a date scheduled for his preliminary hearing.