On obtaining and reporting a 12-year-old’s murder confession

Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods gets emotional as he speaks about the arrest of two juveniles for the murders of three teenagers in the Ocala National Forest during a press conference at the Marion County Sheriff’s Office i n Ocala, Fla. on Friday, April 7, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.

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Posted April 11, 2023 | Jennifer Hunt Murty

Following the horrific murder days before of two teenage girls and one teenage boy, all white, Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods announced the arrest and confessions of two Black males, ages 12 and 17, and a manhunt for another Black male suspect during a press conference he held on April 7.

The third suspect, age 16, was apprehended by federal marshals two days later in Lake County.

During the press conference, photos of the suspects, their names and redacted arrest affidavits were supplied to the media in attendance and to the public watching the conference on the sheriff’s Facebook page.

Woods’ press conference made national headlines, not only for the teen tragedy but also for the sheriff’s at-times emotional commentary on the Second Amendment, “stupid” media who just want to “minimize” juvenile crime, and for placing the blame for the uptick in violent juvenile crime at the feet of another agency: the school district.

On the MCSO Facebook page, community reaction spanned a spectrum of emotions.

Sandra Woodson wrote, “These young people kill so easily it’s so awful, it’s so heartbreaking on every level.”

Dara Lyn Morrow wrote, “I fully agree with you Sheriff Woods! The gun is not the problem. The one behind it is. Raising children in today’s world is horrible and parents need all our prayers. Yes, even juveniles need to be accountable for their actions!”

Mandy Colon-Estremera wrote, “Check their phones, the company they keep and keep them away from this. Stop being your kid’s friends and be the parent. They will thank you.”

“Until we get Christianity and prayer back in all of these children’s lives, they have little hope. Prayers for all involved,” wrote Margaret McDonald Ballew.

The MCSO also released video footage of two of the suspects walking in handcuffs from the sheriff’s office. The video was taken at 3:15 a.m., several hours before Woods’ press conference. The boys were visibly dazed. Some remarked on the video posted to the MCSO Facebook page that the suspects seemed unremorseful.

In the video, the handcuffed 12-year-old was not wearing a shirt. The 17-year-old asked a deputy about the camera recording them. To which the deputy replied, “News.”

However, the camera did not belong to any news outlet but is the property of the sheriff’s office. The agency was recording the event and soon shared it with the media.

The release of the footage posed ethical concerns for media outlets, given the ages of the suspects- particularly the 12 year old. Some embedded the footage of the walk on their own news sites. Most, including the “Gazette,’’ followed the lead set by the Associated Press and refrained from posting minors’ photos and names, waiting to see whether the minors are charged as an adult.

Chair of the Ethics Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists Fred Brown told the “Gazette” the journalists generally speaking “use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes and sources or subjects who are inexperienced.”

The video of the minors on the MCSO Facebook page has been shared 1,600 times and has received more than 2,700 reactions from viewers.

While much is still unknown about this community nightmare, which has devastated at least six local families, the arrest affidavit for the 12-year-old suspect offers a significant detail. The boy who, along with his mother, waived his right to legal representation, told detectives he was ordered by one of the older suspects to shoot one of the victims “or his family would be killed.”

The “Gazette” has asked the sheriff’s office to share the circumstances surrounding the confession of the 12-year-old, and this is what they provided:

At 7:13 p.m., the boy was placed in an interview room.

At 9:05 p.m., the detectives and the suspect’s mother entered the interview room and the boy was provided with a suit jacket to wear, which he continued to wear until he was transported to the jail later in the night. The interview then began.

At 10:16 p.m., the interview concluded. The detectives then began to prepare 12-year-old’s arrest paperwork.

At 1:02 a.m., the suspect was provided with food to eat from McDonald’s.

At 3:15 a.m., suspect was escorted out of the interview room and transported to the Marion County Jail and the jacket he was wearing was removed immediately before he left the interview room

The juveniles are being held while the state attorney investigates and decides how to charge them.

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