Pa. Boy, 13, Charged as Adult in Fatal Shooting of Brother During Game of 'Cops and Robbers'

The charge raised concern among those who track juvenile justice and sentencing

Pennsylvania shooting victim
Jonivan Snyder. Photo: GoFundMe

A 13-year-old boy is behind bars charged as an adult with felony homicide after police allege he grabbed a loaded handgun that his father says he kept unlocked in their home for protection and fatally shot his 9-year-old brother while playing "cops and robbers."

A family member says the charging decision by a local Pennsylvania prosecutor, which follows the requirements of state law, compounds the tragedy.

"Yesterday forever changed all our lives," the victim's aunt, Kelly Wright, wrote on a GoFundMe page seeking donations for both the victim's funeral and the suspect's legal defense one day after the July 8 incident. "We not only lost a 9 yr old precious little boy, but we could potentially lose his 13yr old brother."

The victim, Jonivan Wayne Snyder, played youth baseball, "loved cars, trucks, Pokemon, and especially playing video games with his brother and sister," according to an online obituary posted by the family. "He also enjoyed wrestling with his cousin. Jonivan was a ball of energy and was happy go lucky. He had many friends because of his bright personality."

PEOPLE is not naming the accused because he is a minor.

The adult charge is mandated by Pennsylvania statute, which requires that certain alleged crimes committed by juveniles -- including those involving homicide or firearms -- are automatically elevated above juvenile court, George H. Matangos, the defense attorney for the accused, tells PEOPLE.

The local Franklin County district attorney who filed the charge, Matt Fogal, "is following the law," says Matangos, a former prosecutor who previously investigated juvenile crimes. "I know Matt Fogal. I know he's not doing this out of some spite or anger. I understand that. So does the family."

But in regard to the rigid requirement of the controversial state law, Matangos says, "I'm not sure that it ever reached the legislative intent that it was meant to curb juvenile crime."

The adult charge against the 13-year-old has raised concern among those who track juvenile justice and sentencing.

Pennsylvania remains an "outlier" as more than 80 percent of states have made it harder to prosecute minors in adult court, says Marcy Mistreet, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, which works to end prosecution, sentencing and incarceration of children under 18.

"Kids who go into the adult court re-offend quicker with more violent crimes, with very, very poor life outcomes," she tells PEOPLE. "That poor family, where's the sense of justice there? How is this making life better or solving anything that this family is going through right now?"

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"They're not demanding justice," she says of the prosecutor's office. "They're demanding punishment, and there's a difference."

PEOPLE's call to Fogal was not immediately returned.

'Children Are Uniquely Capable of Change'

Nate Balis, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, says that charging children as adults fails to consider their ongoing adolescent development, or the role of the juvenile courts.

"Children are uniquely capable of change," he tells PEOPLE. "The juvenile justice system exists because we understand that young people are different than adults."

"This is such a tragedy for this family, and such a tragedy for this community, and there's such a need for healing," he says. "Considering the 13-year-old like he's an adult cannot be the way we respond, in spite of how awful the situation is."

Michael Umpierre, director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy, tells PEOPLE: "Without knowing all the facts of this case, it is hard to imagine a 13-year-old who would not benefit more greatly from the rehabilitative efforts of the juvenile justice system as compared to the more punitive approaches of the adult criminal justice system."

According to an arrest affidavit, the suspect told police that he grabbed one of his father's two handguns from an unlocked console in a living room couch of the family's Waynesboro home because he wanted to play with his younger sibling, who was lying on the couch and watching videos on his cell phone, reports the Patriot-News.

The older boy said he knew there was a bullet in the gun, Pennsylvania State Trooper Trooper Erica Polcha wrote in the report, and “further related he pressed the muzzle of the gun to the back left side of the victim’s head and squeezed the trigger. [He] related he did this because the victim was not complying with his commands while playing cops and robbers. He admitted to being angry with the victim for not listening to him.”

Says defense attorney Matangos: "I think there will be an opportunity to make clear on the record, with evidence, with support by experts, exactly what occurred here."

He adds: "It was clearly evident, that it was a loving and caring relationship, without question," between the two boys. "I've had no one say anything but that."

13-Year-Old in Adult Jail

Police who answered a 911 call just after 6 a.m. said the call was placed by the 13-year-old, who initially reported that someone had fallen. The 9-year-old was found bleeding from his head and in cardiac arrest, and later died at a hospital.

The boys’ father told police he stored two loaded 9 mm handguns in the couch console for home protection, the trooper wrote in the affidavit.

The 13-year-old is being held in adult jail without bond, charged with felony criminal homicide and felony aggravated assault with attempt to cause bodily injury with a deadly weapon.

A plea has not been entered on his behalf. He is due back in court July 24, although his attorney says he intends to file a motion prior to that to postpone that hearing.

"What happened the other day was tragic," Wright, the boys' aunt, wrote on the GoFundMe donor page, which by Wednesday had reached its $10,000 goal. "Something I never thought could happen or would happen. I understand the anger and outrage bc I’m feeling all the emotions also, but as [an] aunt and just out of being a parent myself I can’t turn my back on my nephew.

"I have a 14 yr old I couldn’t imagine if he was facing something like this alone," she wrote. "So please before you send the horrible, nasty, messages to me just try to understand that they both were sons, nephews, cousins, grandsons, and friends, and we love them both."

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